Exclusion as a form of bullying

This is the post excerpt.


I want to talk to you about a different type of bullying. We all know by now how damaging bullying can be, and how shockingly prevalent it is in both our schools and our workplaces.

However, the more overt forms of bullying, the punching, kicking, screaming, abuse type, can be easily identified and in many cases actioned. The more subtle, insidious kind, however, is that of exclusion.

This is the form of bullying that I have encountered almost daily for the past 2 years since I came out at work.

While I can count on one hand the number of times I have faced overt discrimination or bullying, I have diaries full of examples of the latter.

This is a subject that has been studied significantly. I want to include these now to detail the research that has gone into this piece, and to add substance to my argument.

From the Sydney Morning Herald

“Ostracism: worse than workplace bullying”

 “Interestingly, the researchers from the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business[1] also found many employees think ostracism is “more socially acceptable, less psychologically harmful, and less likely to be prohibited in their organisation,” than harassment.[2]

This is the first issue. Political Correctness, while vital in preventing many forms of discrimination and hate, has also left a lot of people, who consider themselves reasonable, feeling muted, and not able to speak their minds on a variety of subjects. Of course, we know that anything people feel uncomfortable saying really shouldn’t probably be said, we end up with this scenario.

People feel ‘forced’ to accept someone who is different, and they know HR or the HRC will drop a ton of bricks on them if they speak out, so instead they go full passive aggressive, and freeze the person out altogether, probably in the hope they will get sick of it and walk away.

This recently cost a transgender woman her life[3]

Multiple sources-

Just days before she killed herself, she wrote to the school principal, “I feel that I am being subtly bullied by all CHAs and by the lack of support from administration and it’s taking a toll on my health.”[4]

As stated above, the bullying was not direct, in-your-face hate speech or aggression, which are career limiters. The absence of this sort of behaviour, however, does not mean that bullying is not occurring, it is simply being obscured by a thin veneer of what could best be described as “polite indifference”

And research tends to agree that this can often be the worst form of bullying.

“Is exclusion the worst form of bullying?”

“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,” study co-author Professor Sandra Robinson explained in a Sauder press release. “But ostracism actually leads people to feel more helpless, like they’re not worthy of any attention at all.”[5]

This is the type of bullying that is most common in modern workplaces. It can be extremely subtle, but incredibly powerful.

Some examples-

  • Being left out of team meetings, work meetings
  • Being left out of social events and birthdays, etc
  • Being ignored in a meeting or having your ideas dismissed
  • Being denied role clarity and definition

Bizarrely, it can even lead to the employee not being managed at all.

“Who’s being left out on your team?”

  “Feeling left out or ignored at work can have tremendously negative effects on workers’ well-being“[6]

Managers may not even realize they are doing it. However, with a person considered of low social capital due to minority status, there is a pervasive perception that the individual will be likely to make noise to HR if they are ‘bothered’, so even negative work performance is left unaddressed, which cripples the employee’s career development, as well as the effectiveness of the work unit itself, with ongoing negative effects for the end customers.

Creating a workplace where employees feel included is directly connected to worker retention and growth, says Jeanine Prime, leader of the Catalyst Research Center for Advancing Leader Effectiveness. Yet many corporate diversity programs focus more on creating a diverse workforce, and too little on the harder job of fostering inclusion”

The manager bends over backwards to be ‘inclusive’, but is too terrified to actually deal with the person like a human being. This may seem to them, and they might genuinely believe this, that they are being compassionate and empathetic, but it actually isn’t. It is toxic and damaging to the company, to the customer, to the employee and even to the manager themselves.

The effects of this on long term mental health and self-esteem are tremendously damaging. This can become a double edged sword; the person is excluded, develops mental health issues, and because they have mental health issues, are further excluded in a society where open discussion of these issues remains taboo.

“Social Exclusion and Mental Health”

 “While the illness is bad enough, what hurts more is the watching the damage to her self belief, her confidence, her self-esteem after an episode. Once in recovery Pauline will seek constant reassurance about so many little things. “Did I say something wrong? Am I acting a bit strange? Are people looking at me? Do they know I have a mental illness? Are they judging me?”[7]

This self-doubt can be crippling. It creates anxiety  and makes it difficult for her to go outside, hard to be around people. Welcome to the social exclusion and mental health merry-go-round.”

How this works- an otherwise happy, well adjusted and confident employee, who happens to be from a minority background subject to adverse social reception (ie muslim, LGBT, indigenous, elderly, etc) is placed in an environment where their peers utterly reject them because of who they are.

This rejection isn’t direct, or to their face, it is instead progressive exclusion from work and social events and gatherings, from information vital to their job. They are denied regular contact with their peers and their manager, they do not receive performance reviews or feedback, good or bad, and are left to stew in their own thoughts.

The employee, who wants to do a good job and deliver on their responsibilities, cannot help but notice this. Over time, they begin to internalize it, and assume blame for the behaviour of their peers and manager. They begin to believe that they are the problem, that they are somehow ‘broken’ or ‘unworthy’, and their self-confidence begins to crumble.

As a result, they begin to panic, making mistakes, fearful of being judged or further ostracised. They begin to feel trapped, panic sets in, they see only a sea of enemies, and they feel that their peers consider them worthless and incapable.

Burdened with this, they actually become incapable, trapped in their mental trauma, with no outlet or relief, and this means any opportunity they may have to break the cycle is robbed from them.

Make no mistake, all of this is actually the result of bullying.

“Being ignored as a bullying tactic”

 “Being overlooked can feel distressing; we’ve all felt this from time to time. Being perpetually ignored feels rotten. To the degree a person is important to you, or to the degree you have expectations of that person that are not met, the more pain and rejection you will likely experience.”[8]

This is the meat of the issue right here. It is a horrendously damaging and insidious form of bullying; worse, the perpetrators might not even see themselves as bullies, and be genuinely astounded when their behaviour is pointed out to them.

“Being perpetually ignored is a bullying tactic and it involves what might appear as slight brush offs to the target in order for the bully to gain the upper hand. Remember, when these ‘slight brush offs’ happen over and over again, they evolve from slight to deliberately drastic from their continual impact of isolating the targe”

The most common form of this bullying is eye contact. Ever been in a meeting with someone and they steadfastly refuse to look you in the eye? Or, worse, they actively make eye contact with everyone else in the room and yet repeatedly ignore you? That is bullying. A cornerstone of any company’s philosophy, and certainly Queensland Rail’s, is to treat each other with respect.

This sort of behaviour is not treating others with respect, but most commonly goes unchecked as it is seen as impossible to deal with. This is particularly true when the perpetrator is a senior manager who enjoys considerable prestige and influence.

“Have you ever been the last person to find out about the holiday schedule or have you ever been going about your work happily and you see a flock of co-workers discussing something in an unofficial capacity, but you were not asked your opinion; you were not invited in the first place?”

This is another very common form of subtle bullying. You will be seated at your desk, and suddenly everyone around you will disappear, and no one will bother telling you where they went or why.

Or, you will return to your desk and a previously animated conversation between your co-workers will abruptly cease. People will turn and stare, silently, then return to their desks.

What can as a once off appear trivial or superficial in fact over time can be incredibly damaging to mental health and self-esteem.

Situations where you enter a meeting and people sit as far away as possible from the person being excluded, or refuse to acknowledge or engage them as a peer. Alternatively, they will be outwardly cordial to the employee, but then actively undermine them behind their back.

These are all forms of bullying, and all equally damaging, as well as being equally hard to deal with.

Even if you think these people should just “harden up” and be grateful they even have a job, you are actively hurting your business by allowing it to occur[9].

What can be done?

This sort of toxic behaviour, once embedded in a workplace, is incredibly difficult to dislodge and deal with.

 “Viewing differences positively is a key component of a healthy and inclusive organization. One way to create a more inclusive work environment is to help coworkers view differences as assets rather than as potential liabilities. For example, rather than viewing an older employee as someone who doesn’t fit in a youthful work culture, help coworkers realize that the older person is a valuable, experienced resource. When employees are uncomfortable working with a person from a different culture, help them appreciate how cultural differences can be used to build bridges with clients.”[10]

This is an excellent article that gives a number of tactics in how to promote inclusivity and teamwork.

Rather than taking the approach of saying, “Hey, this is x, they are in a wheelchair, don’t make fun of them”, focus instead on the skill sets and contributions of the employee. “Hey, this is x, and she is an experienced data analyst who worked on the Sunlander 14 project”.

Make the discussion about their skills and abilities, not their point of difference. If you introduce a staff member into a new workforce, even passively, by focusing on how they are different they are, that will always be how they are known in that workplace.

You wouldn’t introduce someone as “Bob, he has brown hair and blue eyes”, as it isn’t relevant. Focus on the individual as being an actual person, not just a minority construct. This will enable others to see them the same way.

Another damaging effect can be the perception of tokenism. “X only got the job because she is black”, people will say. I have personally overheard senior managers bitterly complaining that women are unfairly promoted purely because of their gender, not their skills. This is also bullying, but that aside, it also shows the dangers of a workplace culture where diversity is not accompanied by inclusivity.

 “The report, Talent not Tokenism, shows that promoting diversity need not be expensive, complex or a legal minefield for business. And it identifies some key ingredients for bringing about change, including leadership from senior management and employee involvement, especially through unions and other workforce representatives.

Companies who look beyond the ‘usual suspects’ for staff and employ people on the basis of their abilities and potential, regardless of their sex, race, age, disability, sexual orientation or religion can benefit in many ways, including:

  • Higher morale and productivity, improved retention rates and lower recruitment costs;
  • Better understanding of customers’ needs and greater insight to reach untapped markets;
  • Help in addressing skills shortages.[11]

My plea to you is to help do your bit to prevent this sort of toxic workplace bullying, be it against women, the elderly, the disabled, people of colour, or of different sexualities. Let them be accepted and treated as equals, and help make them feel included as part of the team.

“Director-general of the CBI Richard Lambert said: ‘Employers who take steps to encourage a more diverse workforce notice huge benefits from doing so, whether it is hiring skilled staff, understanding their customers’ needs better or more fundamentally through improved morale and productivity.”

[1] University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business

[2] http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life/ostracism-worse-than-workplace-bullying-20140604-zrx7k.html

[3] http://www.advocate.com/politics/transgender/2015/06/15/wisc-trans-teacher-dies-suicide-after-being-bullied-10-years

[4] http://fox6now.com/2016/05/03/teacher-to-mps-days-before-suicide-i-feel-im-being-subtly-bullied-and-its-taking-a-toll-on-my-health/

[5] http://ihraustralia.com/hr-workplace-relations-news/is-exclusion-the-worst-form-of-bullying

[6] https://hbr.org/2014/08/whos-being-left-out-on-your-team/

[7] http://www.queenslandmentalhealth.com/social-exclusion-and-mental-health/

[8] http://www.bullyfreeatwork.com/being-ignored-as-a-bullying-tactic/

[9] http://www.inc.com/jill-krasny/what-happens-when-employees-feel-left-out-at-work.html

[10] http://woman.thenest.com/promote-inclusion-workplace-13786.html

[11] https://www.tuc.org.uk/equality-issues/tuc-and-cbi-report-diversity-workplace


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