What Is Workplace Ostracism?

workplace ostracism illustrated with 6 red chess pawns in a group on the left and one black pawn alone on the right.

What is workplace ostracism? No matter the setting, we all want to belong. After all, self-determination theory tells us that relatedness—having connections with other people—is one of the three basic human needs. So, it is important that we feel a valued member of whatever groups we are in. Sometimes we find ourselves excluded and ignored by peers. In other words, we are the target of ostracism. A new book edited by Cong Liu and Jie Ma deals with ostracism when it happens at work.

What Is Workplace Ostracism?

Ostracism occurs when others in our peer group at school, work or other settings exclude us from activities and interactions. It can be a common occurrence in the workplace when certain individuals receive the cold shoulder. There are several ways in which someone can be ostracized. Lance Ferris and colleagues listed several ways in which you can be ostracized.

  • People walk away when you approach them.
  • No one sits next to you.
  • People do not look at you.
  • People do not talk to you.
  • You are not invited to activities
  • You are excluded from conversations

Why Should It Matter to Organizations?

Workplace ostracism can be a serious issue because it affects employees and organizations. For an employee, being ostracized can be stressful, making the workplace an uncomfortable place to be. For employers, having individuals singled out for any mistreatment including ostracism can undermine teamwork and reduce effectiveness. As pointed out in the Liu and Ma book, ostracism has the following negative impacts.

  • Negative feelings at work. Targets of ostracism can experience anger, anxiety, and depression at work. These negative emotional states can undermine motivation and performance.
  • Poor job attitudes. Ostracized employees are less committed to their organizations and less satisfied with their jobs.
  • Low engagement. Being the target of ostracism undermines engagement and motivation.
  • Turnover. Not surprisingly ostracized employees are likely to quit the job.
  • Poor job performance. It is difficult to perform at your best in a toxic environment where you feel excluded.
  • Undermining diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. The inclusion part of DEI means that everyone should be included at work. Although inclusion is more than just  the absence of ostracism, it would be impossible to have a truly inclusive workplace if some people are excluded.

What Can Organizations Do?

Organizations should take responsibility for the physical and psychological well-being of their employees. Not only is it the ethical thing to do, but healthy workplaces are the foundation for organizational performance. It is difficult for employees to remain engaged and motivated in a toxic environment. Building a healthy workplace climate involves several activities.

  • Adopt inclusive policies. With the recent focus on DEI, many organizations are examining policies to make their organizations more inclusive. This means a focus on having people treat one another with kindness and mutual respect. The word inclusion implies an absence of ostracism.
  • Leaders should monitor communication. Part of supervision is paying attention to how direct reports interact with one another. Observed acts of active mistreatment (e.g., insults and put-downs) and passive mistreatment (e.g., ostracism) should be dealt with as they occur.
  • Taking corrective action. Once a leader notices mistreatment, corrective action should be taken. It begins with a conversation that points out why that behavior is unacceptable. If it persists, increasingly harsh actions should be taken that could result in transfer or termination for continual breaches of organizational policies.
  • Modeling what is expected. One of the most powerful tools a leader has is demonstrating expected behavior. Treating everyone with kindness and respect can go a long way in encouraging that behavior in others.

Workplace ostracism is something that needs to be managed in order to minimize its occurrence. At the end of the day, you want your employees to wonder what is workplace ostracism because it is something that they don’t experience in your workplace.

Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

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2 Replies to “What Is Workplace Ostracism?”

  1. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for summarize the topic in such a concise and comprehensive way. I like the picture your chose.
    Have a nice summer.

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