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Workplace ostracism ‘more damaging’ than bullying

Study finds strong link with staff health problems and turnover

3 June 2014

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By Manju Manglani, Editor (@ManjuManglani)

Ostracism creates a more harmful working environment than harassment, according to new research.

The study found that most people consider workplace ostracism to be less harmful than bullying, but a feeling of being excluded is significantly more likely to lead to job dissatisfaction, health problems and resignations.

In addition, it found that ostracism, but not harassment, significantly predicted actual turnover three years after ostracism and harassment were experienced, and that this was mediated by a sense of belonging.

"We've been taught that ignoring someone is socially preferable - if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all," said Professor Sandra Robinson of the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, who co-authored the research paper.

"But ostracism actually leads people to feel more helpless, like they're not worthy of any attention at all."

Drawing from theory and research that suggests that employees have a strong need to belong in their organisations, the researchers examined the comparative frequency and impact of ostracism and harassment in organisations across three field studies.

First, they determined that people consistently rate workplace ostracism as less socially inappropriate, less psychologically harmful and less likely to be prohibited than workplace harassment.

Additional surveys revealed that people who claimed to have experienced ostracism were significantly more likely to report a degraded sense of workplace belonging and commitment, a stronger intention to quit their jobs and a larger proportion of health problems.

The researchers also took an employment survey by a Canadian university that included feedback on feelings of workplace isolation and harassment and compared it to turnover rates three years after the survey was conducted. They found that people who reported feeling ostracised were significantly more likely to have quit.

"There is a tremendous effort underway to counter bullying in workplaces and schools, which is definitely important. But abuse is not always obvious," said Robinson.

"There are many people who feel quietly victimised in their daily lives, and most of our current strategies for dealing with workplace injustice don't give them a voice."

The research paper 'Is negative attention better than no attention? The comparative effects of ostracism and harassment at work' is scheduled for publication in Organization Science.



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