Updated: Aug 22
Author(s): Alyssa Rodger
As young children, we are taught to include others, be good friends, and perhaps most importantly, be cognizant of the feelings of others. There was perhaps nothing more devastating than being chosen last by friends for a game or being excluded altogether. Although the manners in which these situations are occurring have adapted as we age, it is still an all too prevalent phenomenon, especially in the workforce.
Workplace ostracism is a form of social exclusion that is concerned with the range to which an individual perceives themselves to be shunned, ignored, or excluded outright by other coworkers within their workplace (Xia et al., 2018; Jahanzeb & Fatima, 2017). This can occur to varying severity, for various lengths of time episodically or chronically, and cause varying effects on the employee, as will be explored shortly (Sharma & Dhar, 2022). Workplace ostracism can be seen in simple behaviours, such as coworkers failing to return morning greetings, avoiding eye contact, or in not responding to emails, and in more complex situations, such as not being invited to participate in important meetings or being purposefully excluded from social events (Howard et al., 2020; Sharma & Dhar, 2022; Jahanzeb & Fatima, 2017). For example, the top selling sales associate who receives special praise from management is no longer invited out after work with the rest of the sales team, which he previously would have been, as a direct consequence of him excelling at work.
It’s key to note the importance of social context when identifying ostracism within social settings (Sharma & Dhar, 2022). In the case of an individual not getting invited to a different department’s work function, where said individual has little to no interaction with said team, in most circumstances this is not considered ostracism, as the context simply doesn’t necessitate their inclusion (Sharma & Dhar, 2022). Additionally, although related and can have overlapping features, it is necessary to differentiate ostracism from other workplace mistreatments such as bullying, incivility, and forms of harassment (Sharma & Dhar, 2022; Howard et al., 2020).
Although ostracism isn’t a newly occurring thing, a study recently discovered that when 1300 employees were surveyed, over 71% self reported themselves as having experienced these behaviours from other staff, and this number is likely to increase over time (Sharma & Dhar, 2022). Research has identified a few key groups of individuals who are more likely to be ostracized by coworkers within the workplace. Individuals in highly competitive jobs (Howard et al., 2020) and who have less self confidence (Chang et al., 2019) are perceived to be more competent at their jobs than coworkers, which is amplified in management scenarios (Chang et al., 2019); those who are experiencing low physical and emotional energy (Xia et al., 2018) and neuroticism (Howard et al., 2020) are at higher risk for falling victim to workplace ostracism than workers who fall outside of these identified categories. In contrast, employees with strong social supports outside of work (Xia et al., 2018), higher emotional and physical energy (Xia et al., 2018), a greater sensitivity regarding other individuals’ perspectives (Chang et al., 2019), extraversion and agreeableness (Howard et al., 2020), political skill (Sharma & Dhar, 2022), and overall mental well-being (Sharma & Dhar, 2022) have all been linked to lower rates of workplace ostracism.
Research findings have offered insight on the detrimental effects of workplace ostracism. In regards to the employee themselves, ostracism can show itself in the form of emotional exhaustion (Jahanzeb & Fatima, 2017), interpersonal deviance (Jahanzeb & Fatima, 2017), poor well-being (Howard et al., 2020), increased stress and reduced sleep (Chang et al., 2019; Sharma & Dhar, 2022), reduced energy (Xia et al., 2018), and instigate negative emotions such as anger or sadness (Sharma & Dhar, 2022) This can manifest in the employees’ personal and professional life. The limited research available suggests that the effects of workplace ostracism can frequently carry over to have adverse effects on relationships in the non-work domain, such as family or friends, which in return can trigger work-to-family discord (Sharma & Dhar, 2022). Overall, workplace ostracism causes the individual to experience significant, potentially long-lasting psychological and physiological impacts.
In conjunction with the employee effects, there are also effects on the organization in its totality. These include negative workplace attitudes (Sharma & Dhar, 2022), reduced organizational commitment (Sharma & Dhar, 2022), workplace deviance (Jahanzeb & Fatima, 2017), employees engaging in negative workplace gossip (Chang et al., 2019), reduced job satisfaction and organizational learning capacity (Howard et al., 2020; Sharma & Dhar, 2022), and decreased overall task performance (Xia et al., 2018). Moreover, this can come at a significant cost to the employer through high voluntary turnover rates that lead to replacement costs, loss of production, training costs, and deviance, which is responsible for over $200 billion corporate dollars lost annually (Sharma & Dhar, 2022). This can see effects that expand far more than with the one specific targeted individual, hindering the organizational culture, relationships, and workforce, among others (Sharma & Dhar, 2022; Howard et al., 2020; Xia et al., 2018).
Recommendations for Organizations to Reduce Workplace Ostracism
Offer employees training in mindfulness to increase the traits shown to reduce the risk of workplace ostracism
As discussed above, researchers have been able to identify aspects of individuals that can reduce the risk of becoming ostracized and mitigate the damages if ostracizing behaviours do occur. To recap, these included positive well-being, high emotional energy, and political decorum, among others (Xia et al., 2018; Sharma & Dhar, 2022). Organizations should offer and implement workshops and other educational opportunities of various types aimed at helping employees foster growth within these areas. This not only works to improve workplace ostracism but would be beneficial to a great deal of other organizational and employee components.
Managers should receive training in how to identify workplace ostracism as soon as it appears and should be trained on the most effective way to reduce this behaviour
Understanding and identifying the effects of workplace ostracism and those who are most vulnerable are simply not enough in terms of reducing the frequency of workplace ostracism. Cohesive training for those in supervisory roles should be implemented to ensure they can swiftly identify the signs of ostracism both within their own behaviours and in other coworkers. Additional training should be completed to provide resources and education on the best practices for addressing both those who have been ostracized and those who are participating in ostracizing behaviour. This would ensure that all issues that arose would be addressed efficiently and in the best standard. Overall, this would reduce current workplace ostracism, set the standard that it wasn’t an accepted behaviour, and curb it going forward.
Organizations should promote inclusion within their practices and values
The culture of an organization sets behavioural standards and overall guidance on what is and what is not acceptable. In the organization’s policy, practices, and values, they should promote and recognize the importance of an inclusive workplace and inclusion within employees. This could include things such as ensuring everyone is invited to corporate social events such as holiday parties, offering the opportunity for everyone who is appropriate to do so to provide input, and ensuring the organization and management communicate in an inclusive way. This would hopefully create a top-down trickle effect, where because the behaviour was being modeled by those at the highest level and down throughout the rankings, it was expected of all employees to be inclusive, thus reducing workplace ostracism.
Chang, K., Kuo, C.-C., Quinton, S., Lee, I., Cheng, T.-C., & Huang, S.-K. (2019). Subordinates’ competence: A potential trigger for workplace ostracism. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 32(8), 1801–1827. https://doi.org/10.1080/09585192.2019.1579246
Howard, M. C., Cogswell, J. E., & Smith, M. B. (2020). The antecedents and outcomes of workplace ostracism: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(6), 577–596. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000453
Jahanzeb, S., & Fatima, T. (2017). How workplace ostracism influences interpersonal deviance: The mediating role of defensive silence and emotional exhaustion. Journal of Business and Psychology, 33(6), 779–791. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10869-017-9525-6
Sharma, N., & Dhar, R. L. (2021). From curse to cure of workplace ostracism: A systematic review and future research agenda. Human Resource Management Review, 32(3), 1–19. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hrmr.2021.100836
Xia, A., Wang, B., Song, B., Zhang, W., & Qian, J. (2019). How and when workplace ostracism influences task performance: Through the lens of Conservation of Resource Theory. Human Resource Management Journal, 29(3), 353–370. https://doi.org/10.1111/1748-8583.12226