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Ostracism is different from harassment – and sometimes worse

You might have seen instances of bullying or harassment at your workplace—we certainly hear about them frequently—but have you witnessed ostracism? A series of recent studies by Canadian researchers find that social exclusion is distinct from direct harassment and bullying, and can actually be more insidious.

Ostracism can mean ignoring a co-worker’s greetings, intentionally excluding them from events, meetings or decisions the co-worker should have been part of, and becoming silent when they are near or attempt to join the group. The studies indicate that being left out at work strikes at the heart of an employee’s sense of belonging, and a person who experiences ostracism at work is more likely to leave her or his job.

According to Professor Jane O’Reilly at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management:

The research suggests that organizations should take social exclusion at least as seriously as other, more obvious acts of mistreatment in the work environment… 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.

At this stage, the research offers a warning to employers but little in the way of practical direction. The studies don’t, for instance, indicate how employers can identify and discourage ostracism.

It’s 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.’

Nonetheless, the researchers do offer some advice. Employers might consider explicitly mentioning ostracism or social exclusion in their employee conduct policies, and generally attempt to promote inclusion rather than punishment.


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.

This is surely an issue to watch.

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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