What it feels like to be excluded in a workplace and ways you can deal with it

Communication and empathy are answers to every problem.

Harper's Bazaar India

Have you ever felt like you don’t belong in your workplace?  Or that you’re deliberately being excluded from all-too important mail threads and meetings? Have you felt aloof because you weren’t invited for drinks with your colleagues? Fret not, you’re not alone. According to the Harvard Business Review, research reveals that 71 per cent of professionals experience some degree of exclusion or social isolation. This is also known as workplace ostracism—a pattern of behaviour that makes individuals feel ignored or excluded. Such behaviour can be both blatant and through subtle comments, eye contact (or the lack of it), or tone. Either way, research has shown that workplace ostracism can be more psychologically hurtful than overtly aggressive behaviour. Read on below to understand why such patterns exist and how we can create safer and more inclusive space for everyone. 

Why does workplace ostracism take place?

Generally, social ostracism in the workplace may not always be deliberate. Often, people who exclude you from various tasks, meetings or casual conversations may not realise they are doing so. This may be because of affinity bias—a tendency to be inclined or drawn towards people who are similar to you. Exclusion or social ostracism can also be due to different communication styles and difference in expectations from the working relationship. Thus, sometimes, people distance others to avoid conflict or protect themselves. 

The effects of workplace ostracism 
According to the Harvard Business Review, “Most managers do not view social ostracism as particularly harmful or socially unacceptable”. However, whether intentional or not, the behaviour can be severely harmful. According to a study conducted a few years ago, “People who feel isolated at work are more likely to quit their jobs compared to people who report harassment in the workplace”. Further, even if they do not quit, their response to such ostracism may be seen through frequent absenteeism, avoiding any form of communication, and even reduced productivity. But the point is, why do we need statistics to prove that excluding someone is hurtful and that everyone deserves to work in a safe and inclusive space? 

What to do if you feel excluded from your workplace?

If you find yourself being a constant target of exclusion, here are some ways in which you can navigate the situation. 

Acknowledge and process your emotions: Workplace ostracism can lead to feeling of self-doubt or guilt, but we’d urge you to not blame yourself for the impending situation. It’s alright to be hurt or affected by such a situation; understand how you’re feeling and process it. You could do this by venting to a friend or simply pausing before taking this as a formal complaint to HR. 

Talk to your colleagues: After you’ve had some time to process your emotions, it may be best to have an honest conversation with team members or colleagues who have been making you feel this way. This may help you understand the reason for exclusion may be a reminder for your colleagues that you are an integral part of the team. The conversation should be solution-led with the two of you arriving at a middle-ground of communication and respect. Besides having this conversation, you can also divert your attention by spending time with people who respect you and make you feel included. 

Ask for context and support: If you find out you weren’t marked in an important email or weren’t invited to a meeting, speak to a confidant who can provide you with the correct information. Maybe the meeting had little do with your role in the organisation. However, if such situations of exclusion persist, remember to document every instance that indicate patterns of harassment, aggression or bullying and lodge a formal complaint. 

How we can make the workplaces more inclusive 

Although certain mishaps and glitches are an inevitable prevalence in every organisation, there is a certain amount of professionalism that must exist. It is imperative to take measure to make individuals feel safe, included, and comfortable in the workplace for optimum productivity. Here are some simple steps we can take to make colleagues feel more included.

Organise an ice-breaker session when a new employee joins: Organising an ice-breaker session will help create a fun and safe environment for old and new employees. It will enable casual conversation and help create a bond between them. It will also help everyone understand each other’s communication styles better.  

Talk to new colleagues: When someone new joins the organisation, they may feel hesitant to be part of conversations. Go the extra mile to make them feel comfortable and included in the daily work and conversations. These conversations can range from asking their input on a certain project or seeking feedback on a presentation or anything else. Make effort to form a professional and working relationship with them. 

Keep communication open: If there are meetings or mail threads on which certain colleagues don’t need to be included, it may help to communicate that to them in advance as long as the information is not confidential.