Why Getting The Cold Shoulder At Work Is More Hurtful Than Bullying

If you're cutting certain coworkers out of the social circle, you're doing more harm than good, studies suggest.

Think you’re being noble by biting your tongue around that coworker that kind of drives you crazy?

Turns out that leaving someone out of that social connection at work is more stressful to them than you may realize or intend. In fact, it can be a form of silent bullying, according to research out of the University of British Columbia, recently published in Organization Science.

"Most of us probably would think it would be better to be invisible than to be bullied or harassed at work," researcher Sandra Robinson told Huffington Post. “Yet when you talk to the people having experienced it, that's not the case, and our data shows that. Anecdotally, people say to be ignored and invisible at work is extremely painful.”

How painful? Enough to make some employees dissatisfied with their jobs, suffer health problems, and even quit.

The researchers conducted studies in several phases: The first found that most people view ostracism as socially passable—or at least better than negative bullying than harassment—while the second tested that presumption in the real world.

When they followed up three years later, those who reported feeling isolated at work were significantly more likely to quit. According to the research:

Ostracism, but not harassment, significantly predicted actual turnover three years after ostracism and harassment were assessed, and this was mediated by a sense of belonging.

Not having a voice is worse than facing an overbearing bully-boss or aggressive coworkers; the feeling of not even being worthy of negative attention ran deep enough for many employees to quit.

Having nothing nice to say isn’t better than saying nothing at all, in these cases. Leaving peers out of events, giving the silent treatment, or otherwise cold-shouldering is less likely to get you into trouble with management, but just as harmful and degrading as direct harassment, the study proved. Even if it’s not done maliciously, the effects are there.

[Image: Flickr user Boris van Hoytema]

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4 Comments

  • John Mack

    Isn't getting people to quit the whole point of social shunning at work? Yet you position it as if the shunners would suddenly change if they realized that the shunned person is being driven to quit.

    Perhaps a study of how psychically harmed people are by the persons they try to avoid at work would be a good balance.

    Looks like this kind of situation, where harm is being done on either side, could use some intervention.

  • Chris Strout

    John Mack, this is true -- a follow-up on the true costs involved would be fascinating. I would posit that were this a boss-shunning-employee situation, the true harm to the company is far worse than the boss might think.