Workplace ostracism can lead to employee turnover and health problems, according to study

Posted on Thursday, May 29, 2014

A morning greeting ignored, someone not invited to informal gatherings, or silence when a colleague seeks to join the conversation – these seemingly insignificant acts of social exclusion can have a major impact at work. How bad is the problem? Professor Jane O'Reilly and her teamstudied the negative effects of social exclusion at work in their newly published study, “Is Negative Attention Better Than No Attention? The Comparative Effects of Ostracism and Harassment and Work

“Our studies show a clear pattern: ostracism is associated with more health problems, lower affective commitment and job satisfaction, and higher psychological withdrawals and intentions to quit above and beyond those explained by the effects of harassment,” says O'Reilly, of the Telfer School of Management. Her research studied the views on ostracism versus other forms of mistreatment at work (collectively referred to in the study as harassment) in a wide range of workplaces.

Although her research is not intended to challenge the current focus of anti-bullying and harassment policies, O'Reilly hopes to advance the idea of ostracism as a distinct form of workplace mistreatment meriting further study. “Employees have a strong need to belong in their organizations, and there's persuasive evidence in our study that social exclusion can be more threatening to that than harassment,” O'Reilly explains.

Understanding the impact of ostracism in the workplace, however, is not the same as knowing what to do about it, which remains a grey area. It may be difficult for a supervisor to pick up on ostracism and determine that someone is being socially excluded. What's more, even if the behaviour can be observed, can it be discouraged? 

“It is hard for a manager to say, ‘You have to bring so-and-so to lunch with you,' or ‘You have to say hello to everyone when you enter.' Workplace rules explicitly address verbal and physical behaviours that actively demean or threaten another employee. It is comparatively rare to find, however, employee rules and guidelines that address the issue of socially excluding someone from formal or informal interaction,” O'Reilly note. “Whatever the remedy, promoting inclusive policies will likely be a lot more effective than punitive policies.”

O'Reilly suggests that organizations can also educate management and employees about the nature and consequences of ostracism and help employees learn more direct and effective methods of conflict resolution and managing their relationship tensions.

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