It's a sad truth that work place bullying is a fairly common phenomenon. Now, a new study is bringing up another office offense that you don't hear about as often but that might be happening more frequently: workplace ostracism, or being excluded on the job.
In a series of three surveys given to 95, 1,300, and 1,048 participants, respectively, researchers took a close look at employees' experiences with harassment and ostracism. In the first of the studies, the researchers learned that, overall, employees find ostracism to be less psychologically harmful, more socially acceptable, and less likely to be a company no-no than bullying.
See, the thing about ostracism is that it's inactive. "It's hard to nail down," says study co-author Sandra L. Robinson, a professor in the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia. "It's the absence of behavior." If someone doesn't include you in a brainstorming meeting, that person isn't doing something to you, so it's ambiguous: Was she giving you the cold shoulder, or did she mean nothing by it? Harassment, on the other hand, is quite active: There's no question that someone who's yelling in your face is doing it intentionally.
But here's the other thing: Even though people think ostracism isn't as damaging as bullying, this new research found just the opposite. In the second and third studies, the researchers asked questions designed to determine if participants had experienced ostracism or harassment, as well as to learn about other aspects of their jobs and lives. What the researchers found: "Ostracism is associated with more health problems, lower affective commitment and job satisfaction, and higher psychological withdrawal and intentions to quit above and beyond those explained by the effects of harassment," wrote the study authors in the journal Organization Science.
In fact, the third study found that participants who reported being ostracized were more likely to leave their companies within three years compared to participants who reported being harassed. This might have to do with one big difference the researchers found between ostracism and harassment: their varying effects on an employee's sense of belonging at work. Essentially, ostracism had a much more negative one. "Being harassed, although certainly threatening and painful, nonetheless still conveys that one exists and is worthy of some social attention and effort, even if this attention and effort is in a negative direction," write the study authors. "Ostracism, on the other hand, signals that one is so inconsequential to others to be unworthy of attention and effort at all."
Yikes. And in the second study, participants reported being ostracized more often than harassed in the past six months. So what should you do if you feel that you're being ostracized by someone at work? Robinson suggests talking to that person (and getting a manager involved if necessary). She recommends explaining what you perceive to be going on and how it makes you feel. The ostracizer may deny it, sure, but she also may say she had no idea she was making you feel left out and then apologize. You'll never know until you initiate a conversation.
All of this, of course, isn't to say that bullying isn't an issue. It's a huge one. But just as companies often have rules against harassment (as they should), the study authors urge organizations to take steps to prevent ostracism, too. "I'm hoping this study will start to get people talking about it more and recognize it as abuse," says Robinson.