How bad organizations create outsiders

For many years I’ve used the term institutional construction of outsider status to describe how bad organizations turn internal critics into outsiders, even if they remain on the payroll. The critics are generally competent — perhaps even excellent — at their jobs, but to the dismay of their employers, they will say what’s on their minds, offer suggestions for improvement, and when necessary raise ethical or legal concerns.

For whatever reasons (legal, practical, etc.), the respective organizations do not rid themselves of these individuals, at least not immediately. However, at best the organizations sort of tolerate them, while finding ways to subtly and not-so-subtly marginalize them. Such responses may fall short of outright ostracism, hostility, or retaliation, but suffice it to say that targets of such marginalization will never be in the inner circle and will never be seriously considered for certain types of promotions. They may also begin to feel isolated, as the organization’s responses (or non-responses) to their criticisms can send cues to co-workers to stay away from them. The targets may well perceive what’s happening, but they often find that it’s not easy to challenge practices, behaviors, and decisions that are cloaked in foggy subjectivity. At times, targets will internalize their perceived isolation and further withdraw from certain types of organizational engagement.

I see this a lot in academic institutions, where protections of tenure and academic freedom are designed in part to safeguard faculty speech, thus making it harder to discipline or terminate professors for expressing themselves on matters related to institutional governance and scholarly work. Lacking the right to simply get rid of a critical tenured faculty member who is performing satisfactorily, the schools will find ways to tolerate and marginalize the individual. Of course, tenured professors should never assume that they are bulletproof from wrongful retaliation for their exercise of free speech, even though tenure does add a strong layer of protection.

Unions and collective bargaining agreements (CBA) can also provide employees with greater free speech protections than those enjoyed by the average American worker. The typical CBA stipulates that a covered employee may be terminated only for just cause, which is usually defined as failure to perform competently, material misconduct, or financial necessity. Labor laws also afford these workers with the right to engage in concerted activities for mutual aid or protection.

As welcomed as these protections may be for workers fortunate to have them, they can only do so much. As I suggested above, no one is truly bulletproof in today’s workplace. If one is employed at a not-so-great organization and decides to become a critic, at the very least they can expect to be marginalized and to face an opaque ceiling when it comes to advancement.

4 responses

  1. I wonder about being the outsider and also the target of mobbing, with being the intelligent critic of practices initiating the outsider status, then the ongoing mobbing. All in all, I wonder about competent leadership, one which listens to big ideas and important observations having to do with the quality of work being done. As a teacher, it feels the district spins in circles of incompetence, surging with trends that never stick, touting the whole child while leaving a lot of kids who are struggling in the dust, and a lot of jargon that is constantly the most important words to use, yet new jargon is waiting just around the corner. What is best for kids, if revealed and proven, is better left unsaid, for do not challenge the status quo or pay the price of being an automatic outsider who is then the target of mobbing.

  2. This is me. I do well in a relatively functional environment in which the people around me and above me are confident in their abilities. They leverage my talents and insight for achieving organisational goals. But the more dysfunctional the environment is, the more at risk I am. Because I can clearly see and describe what is going on around me, I can easily become the scapegoat. For years I spent huge amounts of energy turning myself inside out to be different. But now I understand that if the environment is very dysfunctional and you try to do your job that is enough to make you a target.

    In Australia we have dispute resolution clauses in the industrial instruments that apply to us, and unfair dismissal protections and remedies for adverse action (for example discrimination in the workplace on grounds of race, sex etc. We also have a bullying jurisdiction. Sounds great doesn’t it?

    The bullying protections are heavily proscribed to preserve managerial prerogative. Claims for psychological injury in the workplace are narrowly defined and very few claims for psychological injury are approved. The Australian Public Service insurer only approved 12% of such claims in 2015-16. Most claims are dismissed on the basis of the circumstances falling in the reasonable administrative action exception in the legislation which also applies to the bullying jurisdiction. Essentially if the action is found to be in relation to the employee’s employment (eg in the context of a performance discussion/appraisal) and the employer’s conduct was not irrational, absurd or ridiculous, the claim will fall over.

    The unfair dismissal jurisdiction does not apply to casual employees or employees on fixed term contracts. We have a huge and very rapidly increasing incidence of these kinds of employment. Previous attempts to mitigate against the expansion of these kinds of employment have been prohibited (our version of the Republicans) with the effect that clauses in awards or agreements that seek to deem casual employees as ongoing employees after a particular period have been outlawed.

    Union membership is down to 15% and most union resources go into negotiating enterprise agreements (collective agreements). There is little left for protecting individuals.

    The cost of bringing a claim is prohibitive for most people.

    The upshot is if you become a target – get a new job asap or suck it u

  3. Thank you for this article. What is a sad reality is the harm caused to employees whose potentials will never be realized. If only there were more leaders able to handle those who challenge the status quo because they give a darn about what they do.

  4. The other sad part of this is that those marginalized with “outsider status” may have excellent suggestions that would improve the organization. But those individuals may be seen as a threat (possibly because their ideas are better than those in positions of power), so he organization never gets the benefits from implementing those suggestions – the suggestions simply get ignored.

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