Campus News

Study details what happens when employees feel excluded

Marie Mitchell

When employees feel left out, they act out.

That’s the message that new research from the Terry College of Business delivers as it explains why employees can become weasels to benefit their work group.

“Everybody has a need for social approval. It’s the basis of our human functioning,” said Marie Mitchell, co-author of the research and a professor of management at UGA. “But when individuals are faced with a risk of social exclusion, it motivates some pretty unsavory behaviors. We already know how people react when they’re definitely being excluded from a group, when someone is mistreating them or abusing them. But what we sought to examine this time is: What if you’re not sure?”

Employees can feel disconnected from their work when they think they weren’t invited to lunch or when they feel isolated from group activities like getting coffee. These actions are often so subtle that it’s hard to tell if they’re purposeful. Regardless, the new research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology shows that their effect on employees can be harmful.

“When people believe that they are at risk for exclusion, they assume that there is something about their personality or their makeup that suggests they’re not a valued group member, so they have to do something above and beyond what they’re currently doing to demonstrate their value to the group,” Mitchell said. “So they engage in behaviors that are pretty seedy. They undermine anybody outside that work group, they cheat to enhance their group’s performance level, they lie to other work groups.”

Such behaviors can ripple throughout an organization, causing managers to expect unrealistic performance goals and contribute to an overtaxing, suspicious environment. They even can affect the bottom line.

“These unethical, productivity-cheating type behaviors,­ people think they’re more productive than they actually are,” Mitchell said. “They’re lies, essentially. They’re not really reflecting performance levels or the productivity of an organization. And what’s worse is they can ultimately undermine productivity and the organization’s effectiveness because if those things come to light within a group context, they will totally undermine the group and its internal dynamics. They could potentially be a dark seed within the organization as well. Those kinds of cheating behaviors have taken down companies like Enron and World Com.”

So what can organizations do about this phenomenon? Mitchell has some answers.

“If you’re a manager and you see someone who is not integrating well with the rest of the employees, take care in handling them and try to get them better integrated with their colleagues,” she said. “Look at the internal dynamics and norms of what constitutes performance behaviors for your employees. Employees who are at risk of exclusion are far likelier not to engage in these behaviors if they think the entire work group will be held accountable if their behavior isn’t ethical.

“If there are structures in place that demonstrate a value to ethical behavior, and even include for example, bonuses or other motivators for that behavior, that can help,” she also said. “Accountability systems should demonstrate that they hold individuals to doing things the right way as opposed to the wrong way.”

Co-authors of the paper include Stefan Thau of INSEAD; Rellie Derfler-Rozin and Marko Pitesa of the University of Maryland; and Madan M. Pillutla of the London Business School.