Five years ago, I quit what was in many ways my dream job. It was a permanent position with benefits, a combination I’d never had before.
I quit for a really embarrassing reason: No one really talked to me.
Integrating into a new workplace is usually awkward, but feeling left out at work just never got better. There was no hostility, but my efforts to build rapport seemed to die on the vine. I woke up anxious every day and immediately begin to think of reasons to work from home. Eventually I started spending my days wearing earbuds; I knew I had to get out of there.
At the time, I felt like I was overreacting. But then I found a study on workplace ostracism that determined that, compared to victims of workplace harassment, people who were ostracized at work were actually more likely to quit their jobs.
The definition the researchers used resonated completely: “Workplace ostracism can include having one’s greetings go ignored, being excluded from invitations, noticing others go silent when one seeks to join the conversation, and the like.”
We talked to some other folks who found themselves in the same situation, to find out how they navigated out of it, and what teammates can do to be more aware and inclusive.
The importance of being friendly, even if you aren’t friends
Feeling left out at work can sometimes feel like being transported back to high school. That was what it was like for Alice, when she was working at a large cosmetics company.
“It was an open office, so you could hear and see everything. A bunch of girls would go out to lunch or drinks after work, after talking about it all day. I was never invited.”
She clarifies that it isn’t really about the desire to do a group activity, and that she may not always have wanted to go — it’s about being obviously exclusive. “That’s just rude,” she says.
The study echoes Alice’s experience: “Receiving attention from others signals that one exists, matters to others, and affects others in that environment.”
So the next time you are making group plans, take the extra step of inviting people who don’t seem interested. They probably won’t tag along, but they won’t feel invisible either.
Alice eventually left the position for a better job at a bigger company. She still doesn’t socialize with her co-workers there either, but there is none of the angst this time.
“No one really hangs out outside of work,” she says. “But it’s not personal.”
Find your people, even if they’re not sitting next to you
The desire to be part of a team isn’t something we can just shake off. The report explains that, “In contrast to other fundamental needs, such as self-esteem, control, or meaningful existence, the need to belong is almost entirely determined by our interactions with others.”
A few years into her job at a media company, it was clear to Laura that she did not belong. “It got to the point where I had to carbon-copy bosses on emails because if I didn’t, they would just be totally ignored,” she said. “It was just very isolating.”
Rather than leave her position, though, Laura instead found that sense of belonging in different departments. “I decided to find my people elsewhere, basically,” she says. “A pocket where my ideas and input was welcome and encouraged, and actively shift my job in the direction of those people.”
Teamwork is key to combat feeling left out at work, and leaders have responsibility
The study recommends that bosses “assist employees in learning more direct and effective methods of conflict resolution and managing their relationship tensions.”
This approach was exactly what Elizabeth needed, after she realized her team had made plans to completely shut her out of a promotion she thought was a sure thing.
“I arrived at a meeting with the whole department and I thought that I had the team’s backing,” she recalls. “And then it was announced that in fact they were going to support someone else taking the position.”
Watching her network dissolve in front of her was so destabilizing that Elizabeth went on a leave that lasted several years. While on this leave, she took a course where she realized the way she approached conflict was incompatible with the approach of the rest of the team.
“It helped me to get over that real sense of being on the outside for no reason,” she says.
Once she had this insight, she was able to return to the workplace she felt she’d never set foot in again. Her new perspective has changed the dynamic entirely.
“I ended up totally supporting the very person who I had the conflict with to begin with” she confessed. “They had it so right, about everything!”
*Names of sources have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.