By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
It is one of the earliest and most heartbreaking tactics that children learn: Because social connections are powerful, taking those connections away is a weapon. So kids are left out, not included, not talked to, ignored. Ostracism from one's peers may be a passive form of aggression, but it is a painful form all the same. And, like most of the other battles from the playground, it doesn't end with childhood. Based on some recent research, it continues in the workplace, and it does so at a level that managers and attorneys may not fully appreciate. The research comes from a survey of 3,400 American workers in a number of different types of companies. According to the research, summarized in a recent Psyblog post, active bullying is a problem in the workplace, but the greater problem is ostracism. "Compared with those who had experienced harassment," the piece concludes, "those being ignored felt more inclined to quit their job, less connection to their job and had a greater number of health problems."
That implies the need for a broader view of workplace aggression and the full spectrum of factors that can turn someone into a whistle-blower, a plaintiff, or simply an ex-employee. Lawyers, and managers who are informed by lawyers, might be putting most of their focus on active harassment and missing other aspects of a company culture that can be just as destructive, or more so. I can imagine a manager trying to resolve a dispute by saying, "Can't you just ignore him," believing that silence means peace and a return to work. But what the research indicates is that silence can be a form of workplace conflict as well, and perhaps the worst form of it. Workplace ostracism deserves to be considered when thinking about harassment, retaliation, constructive discharge, and hostile environment claims. In this post, I will take a look at the research along with a few implications.