Tired of that jerk boss who keeps making fun of you at work? You’re not alone. In the past decade, research has established bullying as a prevalent problem among working Americans. A survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute earlier this year found that more than a quarter of adults have suffered some form of harassment at the office, most often from superiors. The effects on employees were severe: anxiety, depression, and, in extreme cases, even post-traumatic stress.
As damaging as office bullies’ unwanted attention appears to be, however, a group of researchers believes they’ve found something even more harmful to workers: no attention at all.
For a recent study in Organization Science, the University of British Columbia’s Sandra Robinson and her team analyzed surveys that juxtaposed the consequences of workplace ostracism with workplace bullying—alienating co-workers, that is, rather than abusing them. The results suggest that the former is a lot worse.
“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. But ostracism actually leads people to feel more helpless, like they’re not worthy of any attention at all.”
Two of the study’s surveys asked a diverse set of American workers to rate their sense of belonging and well-being at work, as well as the extent to which they’ve felt ostracized and harassed by co-workers. People whose colleagues often neglected them—left them out of conversations, ignored them in the hallways, etc.—felt unhappier, disliked work more, and even more frequently left their jobs than people who were bullied.
This response is striking, the researchers say, because ostracism is seen as far more socially acceptable than bullying. They even conducted an initial survey that found workers consider ignoring their colleagues more appropriate than harassing them.
“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,” Robinson says in a press release. “But ostracism actually leads people to feel more helpless, like they’re not worthy of any attention at all.”
The researchers speculate that exclusion has a particularly powerful impact on workers because it cuts out the possibility of any sort of positive social exchange with their peers. Ostracism’s “primary impact is to disconnect and to isolate, not to involve,” the researchers write. It “disengage[s] the target … from social interaction” and “inhibit[s] the target from responding to this form of mistreatment.”
Robinson and her team note that ostracism in the workplace need not be intentional to be harmful. In some cases, busy or exceptionally aloof co-workers may have no idea they’re being cruel by neglecting one of their colleagues. But they’re still severing the thread of human connection that seems, above all else, to matter most for happiness at work—even if that thread jerks people around a bit.
“There are many people who feel quietly victimized in their daily lives,” Robinson says. Despite progress in combating workplace bullying, she contends that “most of our current strategies for dealing with workplace injustice don’t give them a voice.”