Sauder professors explore the darkside of work

UBC Sauder Professors

Canadians work harder than most, at least judging from the latest edition of OECD’s 2011 report Society at a Glance. It shows Canadians putting in 8.6 hours of work per day, compared an average of eight hours a day. 

For many, work is an important part of life that brings meaning and purpose. But what happens when something goes wrong at the office – layoffs, bullying or injuries?

On March 6, during UBC’s Celebrate Research Week, Sauder School of Business professors Sally Maitlis, Sandra Robinson and Danielle van Jaarsveld will come together to explore the downside to working life in the major symposium “A Walk on the Darkside of Work” at UBC Robson Square.

Drawing on her work on dysfunctional workplace behavior, Professor Robinson examines “Ostracism in the Workplace: When Silence Hurts”. Her recent research shows that 70 per cent of employees perceive that they have been the target of at least one specific act of ostracism or exclusion in the past six months. Still, the issue of employees being excluded or feeling invisible in the workplace is often overlooked.

There is a general notion that organizations pay attention to bullying or sexual harassment, but tend to turn a blind eye to these types of passive-aggressive behaviors, Robinson says. But ostracism shouldn’t be ignored. Robinson and her fellow researchers find that the level of ostracism a person experiences predicts their likelihood of turnover four years later, whereas harassment and bullying do not. “Ostracism has a strong psychological impact on individuals and is more harmful than other forms of bullying, harassment or aggression in the workplace,” Robinson says.

Another workplace relationship that will come under focus at the symposium is the one between employees and customers. In “Misbehaving customers and their influence on employers,” Associate Professor Danielle van Jaarsveld looks at the influence of the customer on the employee, which is a relatively new area of research.

Key findings show that when customers mistreat employees it influences voluntary turnover, and leads to emotional exhaustion and sleep problems. Van Jaarsveld says it is crucial for managers to think about how they can support their employees when it comes to dealing with customers, especially when they are faced with difficult encounters.

Associate Professor Sally Maitlis’ presentation “Out of darkness: Stories of trauma and growth at work” deals with dancers and musicians who have suffered career-shattering injuries, but who in many cases have made sense of their situation in ways that lead to post-traumatic growth. “The basic idea is that good can come from bad,” Maitlis says. “We can’t necessarily prevent bad things from happening in our working life, but we do have some control over how we react to them.”

Although Maitlis’ study centers on artistic occupations, the results are applicable to other professions, people losing their jobs in corporate layoffs, and veterans returning from deployment, as well as individuals encountering a variety of other work-related traumas. “If bad things happen in the course of your work, you can, through reflection and often with the help of other people, find new meaning and move forward,” Maitlis says.