The Danger of Workplace Ostracism and How to Stop It

Workplace ostracism is a type of mistreatment that occurs when someone is made to feel excluded from a group of coworkers. Past research seems to be conflicting on what we can expect when this happens. Sometimes research shows that ostracized employees will become less interested in helping their organization and will cut back on organizational citizenship behavior (OCB) in response. This means that they will reduce activities that are not part of their formal job descriptions. On the other hand, some research shows that ostracized employees will increase pro-social behavior, meaning they will try harder to do things that will allow them to become accepted by the group. So which is it?  Will ostracized employees do more or less to help others at work?


New research (Wu, Liu, Kwan, & Lee, 2016) helps us understand the answer to this question by discovering why and when ostracized employees decrease organizational citizenship behavior. In two studies conducted in China, the researchers demonstrate that the reason why ostracized employees reduce their organizational citizenship behavior is because ostracism makes them feel a lower sense of organizational identification. This concept is basically what it sounds like: how much employees think and feel that they belong at their organization. When ostracized, employees may feel that they don’t really belong with the group or with their organization. And of course, why would those employees then want to go out of their way to benefit an organization that they don’t feel connected with? The key point is that ostracism caused by some coworkers can help change a person’s attitude about the organization as a whole.

The researchers also explored the circumstances that led to this outcome. They found that the above finding is more pronounced when employees felt that they had “upward mobility,” or the ability to find employment elsewhere due to strong skills or qualifications. If employees have this upward mobility, they are more likely to react to ostracism by deciding that they don’t belong at their organization. In turn, they decrease organizational citizenship behavior. When employees feel less upward mobility, they may imagine that this is their only opportunity for employment, and they may then fight against the inclination to form a negative assessment of the organization. In other words, because they think they are stuck there, they will fight to make the most of the situation. These employees are more likely to continue performing organizational citizenship behavior.


This study shows how ostracism at work may be harmful to an organizations’ bottom line. It is especially important to note how poor interpersonal behavior didn’t merely lead targeted employees to form negative assessments about their tormentors, but instead these targets formed negative assessments about the entire organization. They decided that they don’t belong, and acted accordingly.

Therefore, organizations should encourage communication, cooperation, and increased support, say the authors. This may reduce the likelihood of social ostracism. The authors also note that this is especially the case with employees who have upward mobility, who are more likely to bear the brunt of workplace ostracism. These employees need to be given opportunities to build their social or political skill, say the authors, so that they are better equipped to cope with and reduce social ostracism at work.


Wu, C., Liu, J., Kwan, H. K., & Lee, C. (2016). Why and when workplace ostracism inhibits organizational citizenship behaviors: An organizational identification perspective. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(3), 362-378.

Image credit: istockphoto/Prostock-Studio