Guarding against workplace ostracism in a period of change

The move towards more flexible working may involve changes to how and when we interact with our colleagues. There may also be change to our physical work setting as employers re-think the use of space. Such upheaval is a fertile environment for us to experience uncertainty about our place in the ‘new’ set-up. For some, this can be perceived as ostracism.

A recent meta-analysis of research in this area has highlighted the various consequences of ostracism. It has also suggested the value of employers taking care to promote ‘organisation-based self-esteem’ (OBSE) in their staff, giving them a strong sense of worth and competence.

What is workplace ostracism?

Workplace ostracism is ‘the extent to which individuals perceive that they are being ignored or excluded by others in a workplace’. (Ferris et al, 2008)

There is useful background information, at a social level, in Navigating Covid-19: Insights from research on social ostracism. This highlights our need for social connections for our mental well-being and how we ‘self-explain’ when these connections are missing. It also explains that ostracism is a particularly negative social experience. This is because ‘it simultaneously threatens several basic needs: belonging, self-esteem, control, meaningful existence, and certainty’.

The ‘need to belong’ is strong, which is why ostracism has been likened to ‘social death’. In its most severe forms it is very damaging, however even milder experience can undermine our sense of being valued.

As an indication of prevalence, the 2020 CIPD survey on conflict found that, of those employees who said they had experienced bullying at work, 18% of women and 10% of men reported being isolated or excluded from social activities.

How does it arise?

Ostracism can be deliberate, as a recognised bullying tactic. HR Acuity’s article gives five examples of exclusion in the workplace, including in “the break room…a venue for employees to take a breather [or be] excluded from office chit chat”. It also lists exclusion via social media. The 2020 CIPD research report drew attention to this modern manifestation too, recounting the experience of workers who, excluded from digital discussions, felt that others were “talking behind my back”.

Ostracism can also be unintentional. Acts which are experienced as ‘exclusion’ are often done without a direct purpose of harming others. In current circumstances, for example, as teams schedule their office and home working days, it is easy to see potential for people to take a colleague’s different arrangements as a deliberate slight.

Whether intentional or not, the impact on the affected staff member is the same.

Reluctance to report

A colleague who is feeling excluded may be reluctant to report this. The 2020 CIPD report cites a range of reasons for this (in relation to bullying), from stigma (which can be a particular factor in ostracism) to a fear of making matters worse.

It can be difficult for the affected staff member to express the nature of the problem. As mediators, we help people to recognise and express their needs in a conflict situation. Although they can often put their finger on their need for ‘respect’, for example, they find it less easy to articulate their ‘need for belonging’.

 What are the consequences of workplace ostracism?

The 2021 meta-analysis of research on this subject has shown consequences in the attitudes, wellbeing and behaviours of ostracised individuals. Specifically, it impacted on their:

  • commitment to the organisation
  • job satisfaction and
  • job performance.

For some people, feelings of considerable distress led to absenteeism, or plans to leave. For those who also felt unsupported by their organisation, it triggered ‘pay-back’ behaviours such as spreading rumours and withdrawing co-operation. At the more extreme end they even engaged in sabotage.

Case work examples

This picture of consequences rings true from our mediation case work. In one case, a complainant told us she felt excluded from office conversations, social occasions and even by desk position, by a former friend. She was experiencing stress and disturbed sleep and was on the verge of resigning. In another case, a care worker who felt side-lined by colleagues was suffering from lost confidence, drive and satisfaction at work. For her, this was as upsetting as the exclusion itself.

Clearly there are damaging consequences of ostracism for the employing organisation, as well as for the individual.

How to guard against ostracism?

 The meta-analysis concluded that organisations should:

  • ‘seek to establish and maintain a friendly atmosphere that offers a sense of belonging,
  • minimize workplace ostracism by creating a zero-tolerance culture, and
  • provide training programs on how to avoid ostracism.’

Many employers are currently considering fresh approaches to working from home, hot-desking, sharing of equipment, etc. In respect of minimising exclusion, there are four areas to consider:

  • Supporting staff to be aware of how decisions and actions can be mis-read and ensuring intentions behind them are clear in their communication.
  • Encouraging an atmosphere of enquiry. For example, managers should ensure that if someone is feeling left out, they feel comfortable to ask how a decision was reached or to raise alternative options.
  • Providing multiple channels for staff to report problems and seek support (this was a recommendation of the recent ACAS report on conflict at work).
  • Building organisation-based self-esteem (OBSE). The research suggests that organisations can alleviate any perceived exclusion their staff experience at an interpersonal level by ensuring they feel a strong sense of belonging and value at the organisational level.
 How do you build OBSE?

Studies suggest that there are several ways in which organisations can positively influence employees’ sense of worth at work. As well as improving the complexity of job roles and people’s autonomy within them, these include providing strong organisational support, and social support from managers and co-workers.

A key way of providing organisational support is by maintaining an open, inclusive and respectful culture in the workplace. Values-based organisations which promote and live up to their values will benefit from the feeling of shared purpose that is fundamental to OBSE.

A healthy work culture will discourage ostracising behaviour in the first place. It can also empower people to ‘call it out’ – for themselves or for others – when it does arise and, if necessary, to seek support from a manager or HR professional.

As we redefine our workplaces, it’s worth being mindful of the potential for, and impact of, perceived workplace ostracism. Adding the supportive effect of positive organisational culture, and ensuring clear pathways to raise any concerns, will support our organisations to be stronger than ever.

If you’d welcome talking through options for handling interpersonal conflict between work colleagues, we’re happy to help. Call us in confidence on 020 3637 9648. 

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image of binocular in London: taking a wide perspective on workplace bullying