When research on the negative effects of workplace bullying revealed that certain forms of harassment had become a workplace norm, no one was particularly surprised. Satire in movies and television have been parodying the micromanager and tough-guy coworker for ages. However, a subtler form of workplace bullying — ostracism — is now getting the spotlight as University of British Columbia researchers have found that for employees, negative attention is better than no attention at all. And ostracism doesn’t always come in the form of harassment. Organizations that manage remote workforces, such as field services, are especially vulnerable to unintentionally alienating remote employees simply because they aren’t visible during the day-to-day at headquarters.
Jane O’Reilly, professor at the University of Ottawa, worked with UBC on researching the effects of ostracism and harassment at work, and found that the “invisible” employee takes many forms. O’Reilly says, “While we often think of ostracism in the workplace as malicious or purposeful, sometimes employees are excluded simply because they’re accidentally forgotten about or their off-site location causes them to not be included in the social circles at work.”
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
According to O’Reilly, organizations that manage multiple remote workers are more vulnerable to feelings of isolation, creating a problem for their teams. Employees are unlikely to report the problem since ostracism isn’t necessarily a focus for human resources professionals. “In our research we found that employees perceive ostracism as something that is less harmful in comparison to verbal harassment or other more overt forms of bullying,” O’Reilly says. In general, it’s considered more socially acceptable to avoid or ignore someone who a manager or employee is having a conflict with than to confront them or attack them verbally. Employees also viewed ostracism as a practice that wasn’t specifically prohibited by an organization and is likely to go unpunished.
The Impact of Ostracism
This perception of ostracism is what makes the practice so dangerous for organizations. Employees who experience ostracism are less likely to seek support from colleagues or friends and family because it isn’t considered to be as harmful as overt forms of harassment — but that isn’t the case. Employees who are ostracized, even unintentionally, experience negative effects on their health, emotional well-being and self-esteem.
“From our research, we found that employees who felt socially excluded internalize the problem and don’t realize that other employees may be feeling the same way,” O’Reilly says. Employees often feel that this exclusion is personal, but they don’t know why they are being excluded and what they can do to solve the issue. While negative feedback in the form of verbal abuse is inappropriate, employees are able to come away with tangible feedback, knowledge and something to vent to their social circle about.
Ostracism, explains O’Reilly, is ambiguous and difficult to employees to pinpoint or report. In this situation, employees commonly withdraw, become disengaged from the company and avoid the workplace whenever possible. Collaboration, morale and employee retention all suffer. In a follow-up to their study, researchers found that employee retention was impacted at organizations where ostracism was a problem. Many of the employees that reported ostracism left their company voluntarily in less than three years.
How to Transition From Exclusion to Inclusion
For organizations that manage remote teams, there is an additional challenge when it comes to creating an inclusive company culture. However, O’Reilly says, small gestures can make a big difference and the fundamentals of inclusion are the same for all.
“The first step is to make sure that your workforce understands how painful being socially excluded and feeling unaccepted can be,” O’Reilly says. While many organizations offer sensitivity training, the focus is usually on harassment rather than ostracism. O’Reilly recommends that companies explicitly discuss how important recognition and inclusion in an organization is. Then, says O’Reilly, the second step is small but produces big results. “Create norms of inclusion,” O’Reilly says. “Make a habit of picking up the phone and checking in on employees and saying a quick hello or writing them a quick email that keeps them in the loop. While it may not seem like a big deal, it actually can go a long way toward making them feel accepted.”