Seamus (not his real name) was having a rough time at work. An attorney at a large firm, he lost a big trial that the company had invested heavily in. He was relieved when the company still offered him the promotion he’d been working toward — but he then had to turn down the role because it would have required him to relocate.
After that things changed in the atmosphere of the office; he could sense people acting differently toward him even though no one said anything to him directly. “I was not invited to several meetings,” he told us, “and was left out of several important decisions about the direction of the law firm.” He heard that one partner had denigrated him to a group of others; John felt his approach was “very passive aggressive.” The situation came to a head with a social occasion — all of the attorneys at the firm were invited to play a basketball game and he was left off of the invitation. By this point he had no doubt it was deliberate; he was 6’4” and a strong player.
The negative effects of bullying and harassment and other aggressive behaviors in the workplace are becoming better known, but another, quieter form of torment is actually far more common: ostracism. Research indicates that a full 71% of professionals experience some degree of exclusion or social isolation in a six-month period (compared to the 49% that experience harassment, for example). And it’s not just more common: research has also shown that experiencing ostracism in the workplace can in fact be more psychologically hurtful than being the target of more overt aggressive behavior.
Our investigation of why that is has helped us identify a number of strategies that you can use if you feel like you’re being intentionally left out or given the silent treatment at work.
First it helps to understand why ostracism happens, and why it’s so hurtful. As a “sin of omission,” ostracism is an act that someone didn’t do: they didn’t acknowledge you or reach out to you or invite you to something. Whether the act of one person or many, it can include being left off email threads, being looked over for a committee position, or being ignored when making suggestions. You may experience conversations stopping when you try to join in, no one taking your order for a coffee run, or finding out that you haven’t been invited to a weekend outing with colleagues.
Often the person who is leaving you out may not mean any deliberate slight; they may be forgetful or distracted in the moment, or more generally socially insensitive or inept. And those who do realize they are doing it — often as a misguided way of avoiding handling conflict or otherwise seeking to protect themselves — don’t realize how hurtful it is; research shows that most managers do not view ostracism as particularly harmful or socially unacceptable.
But extensive research shows that ostracism is harmful, whether or not it is deliberate, because what it omits is very important. As human beings, we have a fundamental social need to “belong”; from an evolutionary perspective, we are dependent on belonging to a group for survival. Therefore an absence of expected social engagement is a threat to a fundamental need; it signals that we are socially worthless and a bad fit for that very community that we depend on. This — as you may know from experience — makes being on the receiving end of ostracism acutely painful.
All the more so because it can be so ambiguous. It may be unclear to you whether the person actually meant to hurt you; it may even be unclear whether you’re actually being left out of anything or whether it’s all in your head. Just ruminating over these questions in itself causes pain. And because we’re more prone to readily interpret even minor acts of exclusion as meaningful, even if no negative intent was meant, you’re more likely to be convinced that you were deliberately targeted.
Ostracism can have a sharp negative effect on your work, primarily because most of us respond to this kind of treatment with psychological withdrawal. (Even in those cases in which people work hard to get re-included, they become more focused on overcoming the ostracism than on their daily tasks.) In the workplace, that can mean a waning sense of motivation and commitment to the task at hand, or to your team or company. This can result in turnover for the organization; research shows that turnover is significantly higher three years after an episode of ostracism. Being left out also has more direct effects on your ability to excel in your job as you might miss out on critical information or get skipped over for a plum project that would have put you in line for a promotion.
So what do you do if you believe you are the target of this kind of behavior?
The first step is cognitive: challenge any assumptions that might lead you to blame yourself for the situation. Understand that the extent to which you’re hurt by an episode of ostracism depends entirely on how you perceive the situation and its threat to you. In part this hinges on your own sense of how your experience differs from social norms, or from the behavior you’d generally expect in a given situation. If you never expected to be invited to a meeting, for example, you won’t feel deliberately left out when it is held without you. So better understanding the norms of a situation and the intention behind it may improve your perspective on the episode in and of itself.
Ask yourself whether you are feeling left out in a situation in which exclusion makes sense — and also who else is being left out. Perhaps you weren’t invited to a meeting with the division head, but neither was anyone else in your department, because he’s going to meet with you all separately.
Talk to other trusted confidants who know the people and the situation you’re dealing with. Perhaps there’s some other social context that you need to know about; perhaps you weren’t invited to that meeting simply because you’re low on the totem pole, and it’s up to you do be more noticed and to actively exert your influence.
Next, consider whether there’s anyone else that this happens to (does Joan tend to ignore Alejandro in meetings too?). Talk to them and see if your stories match up. You’ll feel validated if they do, and you may realize that the issue lies more with Joan than with you.
When you talk to someone about what you’re experiencing, though, it’s important not to assume that the person will confirm your reality. Ostracism is hard to spot from the outside and it’s very typical for no one else to see what’s going on, even when it really is happening. That doesn’t mean you’re imagining it; if it’s beyond an isolated incident, you should trust your gut. If the person you’re talking to doesn’t see anything going on, instead ask them to imagine with you that it is. If so, why might it be happening? What could you do about it? You can still get good advice and support even if the person doesn’t corroborate your point of view.
Other approaches are less about a mind shift and more about behaviors that can change your experience or the situation itself.
First, seek social support. Aside from the conversations you have with colleagues trying to figure out what is going on, find the people who do value your contributions to the team — or who value you socially — and spend more time with them. This may seem frivolous, but positive social interactions like this will go a long way toward addressing your devalued self-worth. What’s more, your connections with other people can give you the confidence you need to grapple head-on with more difficult relationships.
In terms of logistics, if you’re getting left out of conversations or meetings where important information is shared, find other ways to get it. Create a broader work network so that you can go around the one difficult person and get resources in other ways.
If the situation persists, document what’s happening, as you should with any patterns of aggression, like harassment or bullying. This will give you a better opportunity to take the issue to others, or to the person themselves. It can be hard to challenge situations involving ostracism because others are less likely to appreciate how bad you might feel than if you were subject to more obvious mistreatment — even HR professionals may not be aware of how harmful ostracism can be. Documenting the situation and its effects on your work can help you make the case.
A final option is a direct confrontation of the person excluding you. This has its risks, especially because there’s a good chance that the person wasn’t doing it on purpose, or if they are, they will not admit it. Understand ways of dealing with conflict that mean your conversation will help solve the issue, instead of making it worse. More typically, someone accused of ostracism will deny it, whether it’s because it’s something they don’t want to deal with or because they really didn’t do it deliberately.
In Seamus’s case, he felt relatively confident that he knew why he was being ostracized — and that it was, in fact, deliberate. We would still recommend that he discuss the situation with trusted confidantes in the firm or profession to see if others had experienced similar situations and learn how they had resolved them. Because the situation was affecting his work — he was being left out of important meetings, decisions, and networking opportunities — we’d also recommend that Seamus document all instances of ostracism as he experienced them, and how they undermined his work. He could then confront the situation with those perpetrating it head on, potentially also involving HR or management.
In trying to increase awareness of ostracism in the workplace, we don’t want to imply that everyone should be included in everything all the time. We naturally form stronger social ties with some people more strongly than others. And everyone can be inadvertently left off of an email — those are normal everyday glitches. But workplaces demand a certain level of professionalism and respect between all members. If there’s a pattern where the same parties are excluding you for reasons beyond the social norms of your organization, you need to trust your gut, and use best practices of conflict resolution to address the issue with the mutual respect and professionalism that their approach is lacking.