Kathy is lonely at work. Her office was moved to the corner away from her co-workers. Her lunch period was shifted so she would not be eating with anyone. The latest email invitation to the staff holiday party magically missed her. Her co-workers are not greeting her anymore as she walks by.
According to her supervisor, Clyde, and many of her co-workers, Kathy deserves her fate because she blew the whistle on the drinking that occurred during lunch. At noon, some of the department members went to the "diner" two blocks away, only to come back unproductive for the rest of the day. Rather than orally attacking or harassing Kathy, which would lead to immediate corporate discipline, Clyde and others decided to give her the silent treatment.
Ostracism has a huge psychological and physical impact on organizational life. Psychologically, ostracism can lead to sadness, loneliness, shame, lower job satisfaction, lower productivity and anger. Among the most common emotions is lower self-worth. Victims, such as Kathy, may feel helpless among the peer pressure. She may reverse her whistle-blowing deed and either passively accept the drinking or begin to support her peers and her supervisor in order to rejoin the group.
Physically, ostracism often leads victims to care less about themselves - less exercise, grooming and nutrition. The increased stress of being rejected by others, if continued in the long run, can lead to reduced immune response and increased risk of early death through a wide variety of diseases.
Management can act to help reduce ostracism in the workplace. It must clarify every employee's role within the workplace with job descriptions. Job descriptions include essential job functions that directly tie the tasks of the employee to the mission of the organization. Every employee needs a definite purpose for being there.
Managers who act autocratically tend to breed ostracism, because one misstep against the supreme ruler could mean curtains for an employee. If bullies do not choose to use intimidation or humiliation against their victims, they can turn to ostracism as revenge for any whistleblowing that has occurred against them. A bully can get the supreme leader to move the whistleblower to an office a mile away.
On the other extreme, managers who are laissez-faire may allow just about anything to happen. Employees are free to ostracize others as they please without any consequences.
There has to be a middle ground in which good behaviors are rewarded and the destructive aspects of ostracism are reduced through punishment for the perpetrators.
Managers also can provide employees with education about what constitutes ostracism, how to reduce it and what to do if ostracism occurs. The workforce should be trained to have more effective responses to conflict through conflict resolution and negotiation programs. Compromise, active listening and good-faith negotiations are better choices than bullying and ostracism. Whistle-blowing should be protected by awareness of whistleblower laws and perhaps even by incorporating a neutral third-party to handle disputes.
Those who experience ostracism need a way to report incidents as soon as possible to a supervisor, human resource manager or other appropriate person. Much of the reporting procedure should be established in documents such as an employee handbook.
Gundars Kaupins, professor of management, College of Business and Economics at Boise State University. firstname.lastname@example.org