Workplace Ostracism: Tackling the silent office bully

Category, Ostracism/bullying, Working environment

Introduction:

Cast your minds back to your days as a child. Lunchtime has arrived and you merrily make your way out into the playground (skipping rope in hand) to play with your friends. You see them over in the far corner, chatting and laughing away, so make your way over. Only, when you arrive, the conversation stops. There is a coldness in the air, but you bravely ask them what they were talking about. “Nothing important” says one of the children. Silence again. “Anyone fancy jumping rope?” you ask more timidly. Silence. There is a clear sense that you are not welcome. So, awkwardly, you walk away: confused, sad and alone.

If only that type of behaviour stopped in the playground.

Unfortunately, ostracism (also referred to as: social isolation, abandonment, social death, being shunned, social exclusion, and “being out of the loop”) is as common a phenomenon in the workplace as it is in the school yard. So much so, that it is recognised and identified, more often than not, as a form of bullying / harassment under most corporate anti-bullying policies.

We all claim to be against bullying, and yet I still hear accounts from clients and friends who have suffered from social exclusion at work and the impact that this has had on their emotional, physical and mental health. In fact, I hear more complaints about ostracism than I do harassment.

“So why is this toxic behaviour still so prevalent in the business world? And why is it so difficult to do anything about it?”

What is workplace ostracism?

Workplace ostracism occurs when: “an individual or a group [the ostraciser] neglects to take actions that engage another organisational member [the victim] when it would be customary or appropriate to do so”.

Unlike harassment which requires direct engagement between the bully and the victim (e.g. harming, demeaning, belittling, causing personal humiliation), the primary objective of the ostraciser is to disengage with the victim; to disconnect, isolate and not involve.

Some examples are as follows:

  • Being ignored or avoided at work
  • Being excluded from conversations
  • Suffering the silent treatment
  • Involuntarily sitting alone in a seminar
  • Noticing others avoiding eye contact with you at work
  • Not being invited to work events / coffee breaks
  • Ignoring or failing to respond to your emails
  • Paying little attention to / interest in your opinion
  • Excluding you from important work activities or meetings
  • Keeping information from you that you should have known

This omission of behaviour is what makes ostracism such a difficult phenomenon to address. First, there is a dearth of physical evidence of the behaviour. And, secondly, finding an excuse for such behaviour is easy:

  • It wasn’t intentional, it was an oversight on my part. I didn’t mean to exclude her from the email.
  • Oh, you should have said. I didn’t realise you wanted to come for coffee.
  • I was silent because I’m busy and coping with a lot right now. He shouldn’t take it personally. I didn’t mean to cause any harm.”
  • I didn’t mean anything by it…Gosh, how could she think that of me?

You get the picture!

It is the indirect nature of the treatment, and the ease with which the perpetrator can justify their behaviour, which inhibits employees reporting the treatment.

My story

For someone who thrives off connection and has an intrinsic need to please people, being excluded was one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with. I’ve experienced ostracism twice in my career. The first from a superior. The second from a peer group. For the purpose of this article, I’ll focus on the first instance and describe some of the behaviour which I experienced.

Following a fun and busy weekend, I walked into the office on the Monday to be greeted with silence from my superior. I hadn’t really noticed it at first, but soon I realised that they were engaging with everyone else in the office except for me. Every time I tried to speak to them, eye contact was avoided, or a meeting magically appeared that they would need to attend.

Eventually, after three days of silence, I had the courage to ask for a meeting to discuss the situation. After some resistance, the meeting was held which I thought resolved the issue. But, a few days later, the behaviour re-started just in other forms: Barbeques were held to which I was no longer invited; friendships were formed with my closest friends in the office; my opinion was no longer sought; coffee breaks were held without me. I felt like a pariah!

I tried to work harder to regain favour. I tried to ignore it. I tried speaking to my friends outside of the office to try to understand what I’d done to deserve this punishment.

The situation continued on and off for six months. I spoke informally to the HR team (who I trusted), but every time I tried to describe the behaviour and the impact it was having on me, I felt so pathetic. The things I was complaining about sounded so childish. I was upset because I wasn’t invited to a party. I was hurt because my opinion was never asked for anymore. I was sad because they wouldn’t talk to me.

But it was this daily occurrence of repeated exclusion that took its toll. I felt like I was walking on eggshells every time I walked into the office. It was a consistent reminder that I wasn’t wanted, I wasn’t liked and I didn’t belong.

Why is ostracism so damaging?

Every human being has a fundamental need for connection. That need to belong – to have a sense that one is valued and accepted by others – may be the most fundamental social need humans have. When you deprive someone of that greater social need, it can have a knock-on effect on their health, their levels of stress and their emotional and psychological well-being.

  • Ostracism directly effects an individual’s self-worth and belief in their own likeability and capability.
  • Research has shown that ostracism can cause hurt feelings, sadness, anxiety, loneliness and shame.
  • Ostracism can either trigger a reluctance to work or a reduction in effort at work or result in the complete opposite: a need to over-perform and engage in collective tasks in the work environment, in order to find social inclusion again.
  • Ostracism makes you feel that there is no way out of the situation (other than to leave your job).

And yet still, despite the effects being more damaging than harassment, ostracism is still seen as less reprehensible (and therefore less serious) than negative engagement.

Why do people resort to ostracism?

The focus of this article is punitive ostracism where an individual or group intentionally exclude an individual. It should be noted that ostracism (exclusion) is not always initiated with bad intent. For example, an individual may be excluded from a meeting because they do not have the requisite authority to be invited (role-prescribed ostracism). An individual may ignore someone because they are genuinely preoccupied with something else (not ostracism).

Research indicates that ostracism is used to manage perceived threats to an individual’s or a group’s well-being.

Consider the situations where you have experienced an individual being shunned in the workplace. How were they perceived to threaten the ostracizer?

  • Did they threaten the status quo of the team?
  • Were they awkward, foreign, different somehow?
  • Were they ambitious and therefore threaten a team member’s position?
  • Were they popular?
  • Were they highly skilled?
  • Did they operate on a different set of values to the team?

Whatever the motivation, ostracism sought to remove power from that individual (the perceived threat) so that the ostracizer could retain some semblance of control.

So, what can you do if you find yourself being ostracized?

Examine the situation – Can you identify the reasons why you think you may be being excluded? E.g. do you come across as quite negative? Can you be quite over-bearing in meetings? This is not a justification for the ostracism, but consider whether there is anything that you can do to try and improve the situation.

Look after yourself– If the exclusion continues, it will affect your mental, physical and emotional well-being. Whilst you struggle to work out your next steps, try to leave the ostracism in the office. The best thing you can do is keep yourself fit and healthy and happy outside of the office. Hang out with your friends, be with your family, exercise, stay positive. Find time to look after and care for yourself.

Keep a record of the behaviour – As we have discussed, proving ostracism is incredibly hard, but if you need to address this formally, having a record of repeated instances when you have experienced the behaviour will help.

Speak to someone you trust outside of the office – Given the impact that social exclusion has on our mental state, it is vital that you talk to someone about what you are experiencing. Whether that be a friend, a coach, a parent, a counsellor – choose someone who is objective, who you trust and who will provide the support you need.

Speak to Human Resources (HR) – If the behaviour continues, your first port of call is HR (assuming one exists). You can request that an informal conversation be held under the strictest of confidence. Explore your options. Review your anti-bullying and harassment policy. Understand how this will be handled and the possible outcomes. Consider whether you wish to address this on a formal level.

If you are currently experiencing ostracism in the workplace (whether directly or indirectly) and need someone to talk to, then why don’t you drop me a message and we can arrange a one-on-one coaching session.

Please don’t struggle alone.


References:

O’Reilly, J., Robinson, S. L., Berdahl, J. L., & Banki, S. (2014). Is negative attention better than no attention? The comparative effects of ostracism and harassment at work. Organization Science

Wesselmann, Eric, Wirth, James, Pryor, John, Reeder, Glenn, Williams, Kipling (2013). When Do We Ostracize? Social Psychological and Personality Science

Gamian-Wilk, Malgorzata, Madeja-Bien, Kamila (2018). Ostracism in the Workplace

6 Comments

  1. Michelle McGrew

    I’m having the worst time at my job. It could be age related because the 2 i work with are mid 30s and I am 51. They know each other too. It’s in a school setting so I really have to remain professional. We should be more connected as a team but it never goes that way. It feels like a them and then there’s me setting. As the day goes on I become busy enough it doesn’t effect me so much. It’s the 1st 30 minutes that drives me insane. The greetings of hello to everyone but me. The ring leader will actually ignore me when I come in but when her friend comes in she will literally say loud enough “Good morning friend”. It’s just crazy. They get coffee together. They plan learning activities together and so on. Wondering if I should just find another job.

    Reply
    • friedaL2020

      Hello, I’m sorry to hear that you are having a tough time at work at the moment. It often feels as though we have no other option than to leave sometimes, but it’s also a pretty drastic measure, and I’m wondering what other options are available for you to explore? If you’d like to have a chat, you’re welcome to book in a 30-minute discovery call: https://bravingboundaries.com/book-a-call/

    • Nikki

      hi to Michelle… did things get better in your school setting?

      I’ve been through this treatment and the first time round it lead to very dark times.
      I’m sad to report that I got my dream opportunity but now have a group very similar to what you are having. they are all in their 20s and I’m nearly 40. they have no idea how lucky they have been to get their dream jobs at their age.

      where as I’m lucky if anyone actually notices I’m alive… and its only my first few weeks in..

  2. Joanna

    I don’t know where you are located, but in the US we would NEVER advise an employee to report such a thing to HR. HR does not exist to protect employees; it exists to protect the company. If an employee did go to them with an issue like this, they could expect some very negative consequences.

    Reply
    • friedaL2020

      Hi Joanna, Thank you for your valid comment. Please note, it’s not advice I’m giving – I’m merely putting forward some options. I think it really depends on each individual’s situation and their level of trust in the HR team. HR is there to address these issues – and for some situations it is the correct way to go; for others, it may not be. In my personal experience, there was one instance where I was comfortable going to HR to discuss the situation – when I had decided (having discussed with close friends and my therapist my options) to bring a formal complaint. I trusted the HR team and felt I had sufficient internal support to do this. In another situation, I had no HR team to go to because one didn’t exist. The partners who dealt with HR matters wouldn’t have dealt with the situation properly, so I looked at alternative ways to deal with the situation. So, in my view, it requires an individual to weight up the level of trust they have in the HR team and the results they are hoping to get from bringing a formal complaint versus not saying anything at all and looking for alternative ways to cope with the situation.

  3. Rosemary

    This is exactly my scenario at work. We have an anti bully program. Problem, is that it can be used against the worker. Team work throwing back at team one. I have been documenting the problems, but feel it is petty, when read. So I use have emails to refer to as well.

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

CATEGORIES

ARCHIVES

Unplug from technology and take time out with our carefully curated puzzle gift boxes.

THE BRAVING BOUNDARIES
MONTHLY NEWSLETTER

 

The monthly newsletter provides a concise round of up of key topics discussed throughout the month on social media; the website; in the media, and in interviews.

It also informs you of coaching programmes, workshops and events which Braving Boundaries is joining or hosting.

DON’T MISS OUT!

Subscribing...