This piece was originally published in 2016 and has been updated to include new advice for teams in 2023.
What exactly does ostracism at work look like?
On the exclusion spectrum, you’ll find everything from accidentally leaving someone off a calendar invite to purposefully avoiding an individual in the lunchroom. Feeling ignored at work is a silent but hurtful experience.
The topic may seem trivial — “Are adults really so sensitive?” you might ask — but it’s one that can have a serious impact on your employees’ job satisfaction, performance, and happiness. A 2014 study questioned if a lack of attention could be more painful for victims than bullying. Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is often yes.
University of British Columbia professor Sandra Robinson, one of the study’s authors, told Science Daily that, “Ostracism actually leads people to feel more helpless [than bullying], like they’re not worthy of any attention at all.”
Exclusion is most often accidental, but it may not feel that way to the remote workers who are missing out on meetings and other events. The more spread out your team, the more deliberately you’ll need to address communication. Good processes ensure that everyone has access to the information and people they need to do their job.
Whether your entire team works in the same office or you have employees across the globe, this is an issue you’re almost certain to bump into. Here are a few suggestions, culled from our own experience and that of other successful distributed teams, for addressing exclusion at work.
1. Hire Introverts, But Don’t Treat Them Like Hermits
Introverts tend to gravitate towards remote companies. As employees, they are free to pursue their work in solitude.
“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me,” Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak wrote in his memoir. “They’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. And artists work best alone.”
Working from home or a coffee shop gives introverts the best opportunity to get down to the business of creating. As the remote work trend grows, it’s creating new challenges for managers and employees, namely inclusion and communication.
“I believe ostracism is painful regardless of introversion,” Professor Robinson explained to us via email. In other words, just because an employee prefers to work alone doesn’t mean they want to feel ignored at work and be excluded from meetings, group chats, and social events.
“This is because the impact of ostracism isn’t so much about being left out or alone,” says Robinson, “but rather the psychological impact: Why was I left out? Why am I ignored? What does this say about me?”
When employees feel left out, they are more likely to feel detached from their work and even quit. It’s an issue that remote companies are uncovering slowly. Managers of remote employees have to work toward a balance of steady communication without micro-managing.
Prioritize face-to-face communication
There is no real substitute for face-to-face interaction with another person, even for introverts. While asynchronous communication is often the best strategy for a remote company, regular video meetings are a great way to spark deeper, more meaningful conversations with your employees. You can still demonstrate positive body language, including eye contact and leaning in towards the person you’re speaking to in these situations.
Face-to-face communication is a great time to collect feedback on inclusion, exclusion, and day-to-day communication. Even introverts will appreciate the one-on-one time as long as it’s not excessive.
Offer professional development opportunities
Just because you’re not working side-by-side doesn’t mean you can’t offer mentorship and skill-building opportunities to your employees. There are a host of tools and resources that are springing up to make it easier to boost employee self-esteem and help them continue to grow in a remote organization.
- Lattice helps you set goals and give employee feedback as they onboard and grow.
- Tettra helps you consolidate all of your internal documentation and teaching resources in a single place for easy access.
- Intercom helps you monitor your sales, marketing, and customer success teams to find areas of opportunity.
These are just a few ideas to help bring your team together and make every individual feel like they’re moving forward with their career.
Encourage social interactions outside of work
There are other ways to keep introverted employees connected. In the book REWORK, Basecamp founder Jason Fried makes the point that in-person interaction doesn’t have to come from co-workers. Introverts may dislike video calls with the team but enjoy spending time with friends. Encourage them to seek positive social interaction on their own terms. Balance is important for all of your employees.
2. Understand How Bias Affects Your Behavior
Here’s a pill that’s hard to swallow: we are all biased.
To understand bias in the workplace, it’s worth examining how law enforcement is currently addressing the issue. In Police Chief Magazine, University of South Florida criminology Professor Lorie Fridell explains that there are two types of bias:
- Explicit bias: Occurs when a person associates a person or group with negative stereotypes. The person is aware of their bias.
- Implicit bias: Occurs when a person is unaware of their bias. Implicit bias can affect behavior towards certain individuals or groups.
“Even individuals, who, at the conscious level, reject prejudice and stereotyping, can and do manifest implicit biases,” states Fridell. Implicit bias is difficult to detect but important for obvious reasons. A police officer might say, “I’m not racist, so I don’t need bias training,” while unaware that their behavior could be motivated by implicit bias.
In law enforcement, a keen understanding of bias can be the difference between life and death. The stakes at your company likely aren’t as high, but managing bias impacts everything from the diversity of your employees to who gets invited to sit at the lunch table. Bias is nuanced but worthy of your attention.
Here’s an example we’ve seen play out in remote companies. A manager has embraced asynchronous communication by limiting unnecessary meetings and encouraging the use of Slack, Trello, etc. Developers are happy because they now have more time to work deeply. But the manager overcorrects by excluding developers from the weekly standup meeting, reasoning that they are introverts and don’t want to come anyway. This is implicit bias in action and can make folks feel ignored at work.
It won’t take long before the developers are disconnected from the rest of the company. The lack of standardized communication can leave individuals feeling left out at work because of their role. It’s exactly this type of ostracism that can lead to reduced job satisfaction and performance, along with a host of other negative outcomes for the affected workers.
Get Feedback Early and Often to Make Sure No One Feels Ignored at Work
Intangible problems require qualitative feedback.
As a culture, we are looking to data for more and more answers. And while there are a host of questions that data can answer, it’s going to be nearly impossible to measure something as ambiguous as exclusion with anything other than regular conversations.
New York Times columnist David Brooks suggests that data is a terrible way to measure social interactions:
Your brain is pretty bad at math (quick, what’s the square root of 437), but it’s excellent at social cognition. People are really good at mirroring each other’s emotional states, at detecting uncooperative behavior and at assigning value to things through emotion.
Collect feedback from your employees through conversation or anonymous surveys. (Know Your Team is built for this exact purpose. Google Forms, SurveyMonkey, and Typeform can work too.) But don’t wait around for a tool to tell you that your employees aren’t happy or feel ignored at work.
Educate your leadership team
To change your organization, start with your leadership team. It’s their responsibility to explore and understand their individual biases in order to better connect with and recognize employee contributions. You can do everything in your power to change company systems and processes, but for it to take root often requires a hard look in the mirror.
The good news is that there are many courses — from free, online ones to in-person seminars — that, if you are open to it, will get you thinking differently about hiring, promotions, and managing conflicts.
3. Address Exclusion Before It Becomes a Problem and People Feel Ignored at Work
Imagine you manage a development team. You ask your lead developer to send an invite to the weekly standup meeting. They do so but leave out a member of the team. The meeting is recurring, and the ostracized co-worker misses several meetings before anyone notices.
Chances are they simply forgot to add the entire team, and the mistake can be easily corrected. It’s already difficult to keep track of the myriad emails, chats, and invites that cross our desks each day. But the employee who was left out could be wondering why they weren’t included. Is it the quality of their work? Does the team not like them? Before you know it, a great employee, feeling ignored at work, could be looking for another job.
Businesses grow strategically, but communication usually isn’t deliberate. Early employees choose the tools, and communication habits evolve as more team members join. It’s time to thoughtfully reconsider your approach to communication in the workplace.
Processes don’t have to be complex to be effective. Simple procedures — filing status updates in I Done This, handing off drafts to an editor via Trello, etc. — go a long way towards good communication. An informed employee is an effective employee.
There are three highly effective ways to encourage the free and open flow of information, which is an obvious defense against accidental exclusion.
- Embrace asynchronous communication. Nearly four million people work from home at least half the time. If your company has multiple offices, is entirely distributed, or is somewhere in between, asynchronous communication — i.e., using tools like I Done This, Trello, and Slack — makes information accessible to everyone. A commitment to asynchronous communication means that information is always accessible. The more information is accessible, the less likely employees are to feel ignored at work.
- Treat all employees the same. Regardless of location or time zone, every employee deserves the benefit of open communication. The team at Basecamp, who literally wrote the book on remote work, believes that equality is the key. As Basecamp designer Jason Zimdars wrote on the company blog, “There are no advantages for people who come into the office, no disadvantages to staying home to get your work done.”
- Listen. “One of the most authentic modes of communication still is just listening to someone,” notes the Harvard Business Review. This is a powerful yet often overlooked management tool. Being able to harness it and create a culture of listening can give you a competitive edge in employee happiness and retention.
It’s good to keep an eye out for ostracism, but it’s better to prevent it altogether.