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Is exclusion the worst form of bullying?

14 July 2014

If an employee is being bullied in the workplace, it is likely they wish their tormentors would just leave them alone. However, under Australian legislation, being ignored by your colleagues could actually be considered part of a pattern of bullying behaviour and could be more damaging than more overt forms of bullying or harassment, according to recent research.

The research, released by the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business, found that while most people believe ostracism is less harmful than other bullying behaviours, being excluded is much more likely to lead to health problems and work issues.

By collecting data from organisations across Canada, the Sauder study determined that workers consistently rated being ignored as less harmful to their mental health, less socially inappropriate and unlikely to be addressed by workplace bullying and harassment training and policies.

"We've been taught that ignoring someone is socially preferable – if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all," study co-author Professor Sandra Robinson explained in a Sauder press release. "But ostracism actually leads people to feel more helpless, like they're not worthy of any attention at all."

Workplace

Despite the dominant opinion being that exclusion would be less harmful, further examination of the available evidence revealed that employees who have experienced being ignored at work are significantly more likely to report feeling less like they belong and can commit to work. They also report a stronger intention to quit their jobs and suffer from health issues.

The researchers also identified another Canadian study, released some years ago, that studied workplace isolation and harassment. This study was then compared with turnover rates over the next three years and found that those who reported feeling ignored in the workplace were significantly more likely to have since left their jobs.

"There is a tremendous effort underway to counter bullying in workplaces and schools, which is definitely important - but abuse is not always obvious," Professor Robinson said.

Because of this, it is important that the workplace environment is supportive of positive relationships and communication. By investing in tailored workplace harassment and bullying training, which can encompass organisational values and desired workplace culture, you can ensure that your employees understand the different forms of bullying and are comfortable with speaking out against inappropriate behaviour.

"There are many people who feel quietly victimised in their daily lives," commented Professor Robinson. It is important for Australian employers to remember that employees who find themselves in these circumstances may approach the Fair Work Commission (FWC) to make a complaint and request a stop bullying order. For this reason, employers should ensure that there are clear processes in place to deal with behavioural matters and that these are effectively communicated to all staff via training. Employees need to be confident that concerns raised will be taken seriously which is why it is important that issues are addressed fairly and in a timely manner. Encouraging employees to seek help internally could help to mitigate the risk of action being taken through the FWC.

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