Visible forms of mistreatment in the workplace – such as bullying or abusive supervision – are pretty hard to miss; but you have found that a more subtle form of mistreatment has an even greater impact. What is it?
My colleagues and I have used the broad term ‘ostracism’, but it’s really a constellation of a variety of passive and indirect behaviours. Whereas aggressive forms of mistreatment involve taking action against someone, passive forms of mistreatment involve not taking action against someone. This might include not speaking to them, not helping them or not offering them information that they need to do their job effectively. It can also include talking behind someone’s back, excluding people from decision-making or going out to lunch with a group and purposely not inviting someone.
Notice that none of these behaviours involve actions directed towards the targeted person; they might not even be obvious to the person who is the subject of the behaviour. It’s a passive form of sabotage. Recently I was an expert witness for a case at a university’s Engineering Department. A female professor was being evaluated for her ability to demonstrate and teach how to use a particular piece of machinery, and unbeknownst to her, a senior male colleague of hers had gone into the room before she got there and unplugged the machine. At first, she couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t working; she fumbled around and of course, this made her look incompetent. This sort of thing can drive the victim crazy, because they can’t prove anything; they can’t even talk about it without appearing
somewhat paranoid or neurotic.
We see lots of this bad behaviour in our schools, where steps are being taken to address it; but in the workplace, we’re all supposed to be grownups, so it’s much harder to confront or address.
You have studied the impact of passive mistreatment on employees. What were your key findings?
Our major finding was that these indirect forms of mistreatment are actually more harmful to the victim than overt forms of aggression. This really surprised us. In our first study, everybody pretty much agreed that it is more socially acceptable to ostracize someone than to be aggressive, and that it’s less harmful overall. These two things seemed to go hand in hand: thinking that it’s okay to do it and that it’s not really hurting anyone serves to encourage the behaviour. As a result, if you don’t like somebody or you’ve got an issue with them, that’s what you’re likely to do. But we also found that the people who were ostracized experienced significantly higher levels of depression and other negative physical effects – trouble sleeping, headaches, heart problems, you name it. They also experienced more negative workplace outcomes: attitudes about their jobs, intentions to quit and commitment to the organization were impacted to a greater extent by exclusion than by direct aggression.
What can managers do to address this issue?
It’s very tricky, because social behaviour is seen as involving free choice. You can’t force someone to like a particular person. But that same logic was applied to sexual harassment in the workplace when it was first identified. People said, ‘This is a personal issue,’ or ‘It’s just a matter of sexual interest; there’s nothing we can do to regulate it’. The realm of subtle behaviour is similarly harmful – in fact, a recent study showed that it is even more harmful to the target than sexual harassment, because the victims can’t do anything about it. There is really no recourse for you if someone is refusing to speak to you, even though it should be seen as just as aggressive as if they were yelling at you. One very contestable area is the realm of ‘drinks after work’ and softball teams and the like: what do we do about all of these informal areas in which employees bond, exchange important information and socially network on the job? These gatherings have real career – and also mental health – repercussions for people.
You recently studied whether the negative side of sexual behaviour in the workplace has been exaggerated. What were your key findings?
Sexual behaviour in the workplace has always been viewed as inherently negative, but recently, a few scholars have proposed that, maybe it isn’t all negative – maybe some of this behaviour leads to social bonding or releases stress. My colleagues and I decided to look into this.
We basically divorced the evaluation of the behaviour from the measure of it and just focused on asking, ‘Has anybody told a sexual joke in your office recently? Has anybody given you sexual attention?’ Then we asked people, ‘Did you enjoy it or not?’ What we found is that this type of behaviour is pretty common, and that some people do enjoy it – although not many women enjoyed it and surprisingly few men did. However, we failed to find any work-related benefits to it: it didn’t improve people’s job satisfaction, their commitment to the organization or their overall happiness.
Check out our end of season subscription discounts with a Moneycontrol pro subscription absolutely free. Use code EOSO2021. Click here for details.
[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]