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Volume 19, Issue 32;   August 7, 2019: Workplace Politics and Social Exclusion: I

Workplace Politics and Social Exclusion: I

by

In the workplace, social exclusion is the practice of systematically excluding someone from activities in which they would otherwise be invited to participate. When used in workplace politics, it's ruinous for the person excluded, and expensive to the organization.
Three gulls excluding a fourth

A member or members of a social group can be the targets of a tactic called social exclusion if another member or members of that group acts to exclude them from group activities in which the excluded persons would otherwise be invited to participate. This definition is overly broad for our purposes, because it includes such macro-societal processes as racial segregation and voter suppression. Our interest is much narrower; namely, social exclusion as it occurs in workgroups. Definitions vary, but some call this phenomenon workplace ostracism [Fiset 2017]; some call it workplace exclusion [Hitlan 2009]. Here's an example:

Geoff is new to the group, recently hired over Marie's openly expressed objections. He's expected to assume responsibility for a set of activities that Marie has been handling. Her effectiveness has been limited because of her oppressive workload, and because the activities in question really are outside her area of expertise, and even outside her area of interest. Nevertheless, ever since Geoff reported for work, Marie has been on a campaign of social exclusion. She doesn't invite Geoff to the meetings he needs to attend; she excludes him from email messages that announce or discuss matters that are important for Geoff to know; and she uses her control of access rights to the group's SharePoint sites to limit Geoff's ability to find information on his own.

It isn't difficult to add more detail to this scenario, of course, but you probably get the idea: Marie is using social exclusion to sabotage Geoff's job performance.

Bullies also use social exclusion, but they do so for very specific reasons. When bullies use social exclusion, they intend to inflict pain on the target by limiting the target's access to social support. And because targets of bullies can use social support to execute defensive or counter-offensive maneuvers, social exclusion also helps the bully by limiting the target's access to social support. But social exclusion in the bullying context isn't our focus here. Our focus is the use of social exclusion in political conflict; that is, its use in struggles for control or dominance, or as a means of imposing a particular decision on people who might otherwise reject that decision.

We can analyze this problem according to the number of Social exclusion can be
carried out on the basis of
the professional role of the target,
the organizational role of the target,
or personal attributes of the target
people involved. On the part of the users of social exclusion tactics, we can have either one individual or many; similarly on the part of those excluded, we can also have either one individual or many. The simplest problem is 1-by-1, mainly because of the reduced incidence of differences of opinion and levels of commitment on any one side. So let's consider the 1-by-1 case, exemplified above by Marie (the Excluder) and Geoff (the Excluded).

To execute social exclusion tactics, excluders usually rely on one or more of three factors — the professional role of the target, the organizational role of the target, and personal attributes of the target. Each kind of exclusion has its own characteristic set of results. Each kind suggests its own characteristic set of responses by the target. In this Part I, we explore the effects of excluding someone on the basis of professional role.

In what follows, the name "Marie" denotes someone using social exclusion in a 1-by-1 context. And the name "Geoff" denotes the person Marie is trying to exclude.

Professional role of the target
In situations in which the professional role of the target provides the principal motivation for Marie's use of social exclusion, she has advantages that enable her to conceal what she's doing. For example, she can be warm and cordial toward Geoff in public settings, to convey the impression that she is supportive and respectful. And she can exclude Geoff from meetings or conversations when his role threatens her most, including him only when she has little to lose by his presence. For instance, if Geoff represents the Marketing function for the Marigold product, Marie can include him in meetings that don't address marketing issues, or which don't address Marigold marketing. When excluders can be selective in this way, they can obfuscate the exclusion pattern, which helps them conceal their exclusion tactics and provides them a defense if their actions are ever questioned.
However, even when Marie excludes Geoff selectively, he's likely to notice that Marie's actions are affecting his job performance. He would be wise to accumulate data about the exclusion before registering a complaint with Marie or with anyone else. To be effective, the data must provide unambiguous evidence of the pattern, even if Marie has been selective about excluding Geoff. Actually, her selectivity can strengthen Geoff's case: "Marie invites me only to meetings that I wouldn't want to attend."

Next time, we'll examine exclusion on the basis of organizational affiliation and exclusion on the basis of more personal factors. We'll close next time with a brief look at the organizational consequences of this practice, and what might be required to control it.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Workplace Politics and Social Exclusion: II  Next Issue

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Footnotes

[Fiset 2017]
John Fiset, Raghid Al Hajj, and John G. Vongas. "Workplace ostracism seen through the lens of power," Frontiers in psychology 8, (2017): 1528. Available here. Back
[Hitlan 2009]
Robert T. Hitlan and Jennifer Noel. "The influence of workplace exclusion and personality on counterproductive work behaviours: An interactionist perspective," European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology 18:4, (2009), 477-502. Available here. Back

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