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Workplace Ostracism: 7 Ways It Affects Your Employee Engagement

Parvathi Vijayamohan

29 August 2022

5 min read

Can you recall this feeling you had while at school? The one you got when you inadvertently ended up sitting alone at the back of the class. Or when you were the only one without a partner for a project. Or when you had to eat lunch alone because no one called you or you couldn’t find anyone to join. That same kind of feeling at work is a sign of workplace ostracism.

While there is a lot of discussion around workplace harassment, research shows that feeling ostracized at work has an equally severe impact on employee engagement. In this article, we will:

What is workplace ostracism?

Workplace ostracism happens when an employee is ignored, excluded, or disregarded by their coworkers.

Workplace ostracism can be obvious, or it can be as subtle as a lack of response or a change in tone. It can leave the person wondering if others are overthinking things or simply imagining them.

It brings us to a frequently-asked question: is negative attention better than no attention? For the participants in this 2014 study, the answer seems to be ‘yes.’ One reason is that, unlike harassment, workplace ostracism tends to be subtle. So it’s harder to describe.

Feeling ostracized at work can also be subjective. For example, according to this blog by Bravely:

While purposeful ostracism with malicious intent does exist, it isn’t always the case. In unintentional ostracism, people don’t mean to exclude others, or even realize they’re doing it.

They could be succumbing to affinity bias (our tendency to be drawn to people similar to ourselves), have a communication style that clashes with yours, or simply have different expectations for your working relationship, and not be aware that your expectations aren’t being met.

Effects of workplace ostracism on employee engagement

The survey questions in this Employee Engagement Survey measure areas that have proven, time and again, to be vital to employee engagement. You can test-drive it with a free account. Oh, and you will also get 14-day free access to all SurveySparrow features.

From the survey above, we will pick out six areas of employee engagement where work ostracism has an observable impact.

#1. Employee happiness

According to Prof. Himani Oberai’s report ‘Exploring the Invisible Pain of Workplace Ostracism,’ “When an employee is ostracized at work, this drains his positive resources in terms of support from people around him. Such adverse situations at work enhance his emotional exhaustion.”

In short, we draw energy from our bonds with the people around us. Ostracism is like an invisible energy vampire. It can drain us or make us angrier and more liable to lash out.

#2. Employee motivation

The conservation of resources theory states that when someone faces a loss of a resource or is threatened by such a loss, they tend to act in ways that protect that resource.

So, in other words, to save their energy, ostracized employees will do the bare minimum to get through the day.

According to Oberai, “When an employee perceives that he is being excluded by his social work group, he cannot look forward to them for any help for accomplishing his job assignments.” So how can the company motivate them to go beyond their role?

#3. Opportunities to use strengths

Job-related opportunities at work often come by due to our relationships with others. However, in an article exploring the effects of ostracism, Amer Ali Al-Atwi argues that realistically speaking, ostracized employees won’t get the same opportunities to showcase their strengths. So their contributions are majorly diminished.

It is something to keep in mind while assessing an employee who seems to be underperforming. Are they getting the same opportunities as others?

#4. Work resources

This element is not confined to just the tools we use. It includes physical resources like equipment, and intangible resources, like information. Without these things, business goals are impossible to achieve.

Feeling ostracized at work can be triggered by everything, from being left out of group interactions to being left off of meeting invites. But the result is the same. The excluded employee misses out on information – an essential work resource that could help them do their job better.

#5. Employee recognition

“Ostracism doesn’t always come in the form of harassment,” explains Megan Van Vlack in her article ‘Invisible Teams‘. “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.”

To rub salt on the wound, many managers struggle with giving frequent employee recognition on time.

#6. Employee wellness

In her seminar , Dr. Jane O’Reilly pointed out that employees in a survey who felt ostracized at work not only felt less job commitment but also reported way more health symptoms.

[Excluded employees] experienced more headaches, back pains, muscle tension – all physiological signs of stress and they also reported more psychological withdrawal. So they are physically present at work, but they weren’t really completely putting their mind into their work.

#7. Work culture

Why are some employees excluded while others quickly fit in? Some researchers believe that established attitudes and norms can be a cause.

For example, a strict, hierarchical work culture may ostracize employees who are too informal by their standards. Similarly, introverts are more likely to feel excluded in a workplace dominated by extroverts – especially if they are working remotely.

This points to a lack of effort in ensuring an inclusive work environment. It is one of the catalysts that turn work culture toxic.

According to a report by SHRM, toxic culture costs American companies a fortune. $223 billion in five years, to be exact.

How to deal with workplace ostracism – Tips for employees

#1. Call it out as it happens.

Are you being ostracized? Or are you just being overly sensitive? The reaction to this action will help you know which one it is. And it will also get your point across to the others.

Try not to make any assumptions as to why you are being treated in this manner. The reason for their behavior is theirs to deal with. Our job is not to allow their behavior to detract from how we are perceived or how we feel and think about ourselves.

#2. Journal your experiences.

Putting experiences down in writing creates evidence if you plan to address this to HR. But also, writing is a good release for all of that bottled-up stress and anger.

#3. Nurture your life outside of work.

Friends. Family. Exercise. Hobbies. Religion. Each of these provides some much-needed perspective, and they also act as a protective wall against negativity at work.

How to deal with workplace ostracism – Tips for employers

#1. Get feedback regularly and often.

Subjective stuff like workplace ostracism is hard to measure based on personal conversations alone.

However, you can build a more extensive body of data with regular anonymous employee surveys. Tools like SurveySparrow are made for this purpose.

#2. Distribute recognition equally.

Don’t put the burden for employee recognition on management alone.

Peer-to-peer recognition, like the one we follow at SurveySparrow, enables every employee to praise their coworkers for any thing – from a job well done to being exceptionally kind, helpful, and thoughtful. This can lessen the ostracized employees’ isolation and increase their sense of belonging.

#3. Check your biases.

Here’s an example that often plays out at hybrid companies:

A team lead frequently assigns critical tasks to in-office team members. She reasons that communication will be faster onsite so the work will get done faster. But this is actually her hidden bias at play. By doing it often, she unintentionally makes her remote employees feel that they are being excluded because they are not “present” onsite.

Disclaimer: We are all biased.

But taking the time to understand the bias is worth the effort. In many ways, it can help us spot and address ostracism at work.

Wrapping Up

Each person is different. Drinks Friday night might not be everyone’s idea of fun. English might not be everyone’s native tongue. And some people do like to listen to that one song on repeat.

But we can still treat everyone professionally and respectfully. That includes not purposely ostracizing someone at work. In today’s world, we all have a right to expect that.

Parvathi Vijayamohan

Growth Marketer at SurveySparrow

Fledgling growth marketer. Cloud watcher. Aunty to a naughty beagle.

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