Ostracism matters at work. How bad is the problem? New research led by the Telfer School’s Jane O'Reilly provides consistent empirical evidence of the impact of ostracism in organizations. “Employees are likely to believe the behaviour is relatively mundane and innocuous given its indirect nature,” explained professor O’Reilly. “What we found was that being left out of the social circle can actually be quite negative.”

Ostracism was defined in the research as social exclusion, including behaviours such as having one’s greetings go ignored, being excluded from invitations, or noticing others go silent when one seeks to join the conversation. Across three studies, O’Reilly and her team surveyed employees in a wide range of workplaces for their views on ostracism versus other forms of mistreatment at work (collectively referred to in the study as harassment). Ostracism was found to be more strongly and negatively related to a sense of belonging, and to various measures of employee well-being and work-related attitudes. Ostracism, but not harassment, also significantly predicted actual turnover.

The research suggests that organizations should take social exclusion at least as seriously as other, more obvious acts of mistreatment in the work environment, said professor O’Reilly, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour who studies informal interactions and relationships in organizations. She cautioned that the result is not intended to challenge the current focus of anti-bullying polices and harassment policies, only to lend support to 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 explained.

Understanding the impact of ostracism better, however, is not the same as knowing what to do about it in practice, which remains a grey area. “Ostracism may be difficult for someone to observe in order to determine that someone is being socially excluded.” And if the conduct 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 ‘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, personnel rules and guidelines that address the issue of socially excluding an employee from formal or informal interaction, O’Reilly noted. Whatever the remedy, “promoting inclusive policies will likely be a lot more effective than punitive policies.”

She said that organizations can also educate management and employees about the nature and consequences of ostracism and help employees to learn more direct and effective methods of conflict resolution and managing their relationship tensions. Given the results showing the prevalence of ostracism and its relationship to employee well-being, work-related attitudes and turnover, there is room for further studies that will have both theoretical and managerial implications, O’Reilly added.

“Is Negative Attention Better Than No Attention? The Comparative Effects of Ostracism and Harassment and Work” was published online in the journal Organization Science, April 4, 2014 and forthcoming in the print edition. The researchers are Jane O’Reilly, Telfer School of Management, Sandra Robinson, Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia, Jennifer L. Berdahl, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, and Sara Banki, Graduate School of Management and Economics, Sharif University of Technology, Tehran (Iran).