March 10, 2021

When you feel excluded at work: Speaking up Bravely

“It probably sounds trivial, but I can’t stand knowing that these conversations are happening without me.” That’s what Laura (not her real name — but she gave permission to share this story) told her coach about a frustration she was experiencing at work. Months into a new position, she still found herself “playing catch-up” on her own projects: decisions that she felt she should have been making were being made for her, in meetings she wasn’t invited to. “Am I doing something wrong?”

For Duncan (also not his real name), being left out came in a different form. “When we were in the office, it was hard enough seeing people socialize in their ‘cliques’ and feel like I wasn’t welcome to join in. In a way, it’s worse now that we’re working remotely [during the pandemic]. My Slack is a ghost town, and I only hear from people if I reach out first.” He asked his coach the same question: “Am I doing something wrong?”

Workplace ostracism

The social aspects of life at work — drinks with colleagues after work, casual conversation throughout the day, saying hello in the morning — carry different weight for different people. While not everyone craves close friendship with co-workers, or even needs more than simple cordialness, we all have a baseline need to feel seen, welcome, and safe.

When that need isn’t being met, what you’re experiencing is workplace ostracism: a pattern of being ignored, disregarded, or otherwise excluded. It can be as blatant as it sounds, or it can be as subtle as a shift in body language, eye contact, or tone. In its subtlest forms, it can leave the victim wondering if they’re imagining things or reading meaning where it isn’t there.

Why does ostracism happen?

When you’re being excluded at work, whether socially or professionally, it can seem as though there’s malicious intent. That’s what Laura experienced, saying, “It felt like someone somewhere had to be saying, ‘Let’s not invite Laura.’”

While purposeful ostracism with malicious intent does exist, it isn’t always the case. In unintentional ostracism, people don’t mean to exclude others, or even realize they’re doing it. They could be succumbing to affinity bias (our tendency to be drawn to people similar to ourselves), have a communication style that clashes with yours, or simply have different expectations for your working relationship, and not be aware that your expectations aren’t being met.

Even when the exclusion is purposeful, the intent isn’t always clearly malicious, and may have more to do with the perpetrator’s self-esteem than with the victim.

Why does it matter?

To put it simply: everyone deserves to feel comfortable and safe at work. If that’s not happening, something needs to change.

If that’s not enough of a reason, consider these:

  • The emotional effects of ostracism are very real, and can be severe. Loneliness, anger, shame — these all take a toll on a person.
  • People who feel isolated at work are significantly more likely to quit their jobs, even when compared to people who report harassment in the workplace.
  • The ways many people will naturally respond to exclusion, including avoidance, absenteeism, and hostility, will only make matters worse.

Addressing the issue

Fortunately, as Laura and Duncan both learned, there are effective ways to manage and cope with workplace ostracism. Use these steps as a blueprint for addressing it in your workplace.

Process the emotions

It’s normal to have a strong emotional response to being left out. Those emotions matter, and the time to process them is before you bring them to your manager, HR, or the co-workers(s) making you feel excluded. This can mean venting to a friend or trusted colleague (or Bravely coach!), working with a mental healthcare provider, or simply pausing, breathing, and acknowledging what you’re feeling.

Set a safe environment

Who you bring the issue to (your manager, HR, or the person directly involved) is up to you, and you’ll probably have a sense of what feels right in your situation. For example, if you’ve already tried talking to the person directly involved and it didn’t go well, it may be best to get in touch with your HRBP before things escalate further. If you have a strong and trusting relationship with your manager, they could be a great resource for talking through next steps.

Once you know who you’re going to have the conversation with, set a specific time for it — put a meeting on their calendar, request the chance to talk, or whatever else feels right in your company culture. Don’t have the conversation impromptu or in an informal setting like the office kitchen, where the presence of other people might escalate tension.

Focus on impact

You may not know the intent of those ostracizing you, but what you do know (and what ultimately matters more) is the impact it’s having on you. Tried-and-true “I” statements (“I feel…”) are a classic way to keep finger-pointing and assumptions out of the conversation. Other effective tactics include:

  • Describing your ideal outcome: “I want to know I have a say in decisions related to my projects.”
  • Using a win-win mindset: “We both should be able to trust each other.”
  • Asking questions: “Do you see things differently?”

For Duncan, asking questions was particularly impactful: “As soon as I asked my manager how she was reading the situation, I was glad I had come to her. She validated that things felt isolated for a lot of people right now: that it wasn’t in my head, but it didn’t necessarily have anything to do with me.”

Repair harm

As with any form of conflict, a vital stage is repairing harm. Repairing harm is not about punishment, making others feel guilty, or belaboring a conflict. Instead, it’s about taking next steps that productively address the negative impact.

In many cases, you’ll find that the conversation itself is a major step toward repairing harm: reaching a mutual understanding of what you want your working relationship to become, being able to express feelings that you’ve been constricted by holding onto, and knowing that you’ve been heard are all powerful outcomes in themselves.

This was the case with Duncan: “Getting my feelings out was a massive weight off. After that, it didn’t feel like an issue I had to fixate on, because I could focus on my job knowing I had her as an ally.”

Other times, you may want to get more specific about future action. That’s what Laura needed: “Once we talked it out, it wasn’t about, ‘you didn’t do this’ or ‘you did that.’ It was about, ‘Here’s what I need in order to do my job effectively. How can we both make that happen moving forward?’”

Final thoughts

There are other ways to cope with ostracism that you can turn to in addition to (or after, or even instead of) speaking up. These include staying connected to the purpose you get from your work and maintaining close ties to your support system outside of work. Keep these in mind as you take action that makes your life at work the best it can be — for yourself and others.

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