Marginalization in the Workplace

Davis Foulger
Submitted to CRTNET, August 8, 2003

I am intrigued by Dr. Hastings question about marginalization and interpersonal support in the workplace. I am particularly intrigued by the difficulties that the term "marginalization" has created. Like others who have posted in response to your question, I don't really see why anyone would be see the term marginalized as a pejorative. It seems fairly descriptive of a reality of the workplace. Some people are marginalized in the workplace, and one of the reasons why we have affirmative action programs is to discourage the systematic marginalization of people based on characteristics that are irrelevant to their ability to get a job done.

That said, I'm vaguely uncomfortable with the term marginalization as it is used. To me the usage suggests that a rather diverse set of conditions have a fairly singular set of effects. I will argue here that there are several substantially different subsets of these conditions that have very different effects on at least several variants of marginalization within organizations. It may be that these variations are an underexplored source of discomfort for others. We all have at least some experience of what it means to be marginalized within social collectives. Hence I will explore each variation in some detail. If any of this is redundant with existing literature, I apologizing in advance for not citing it. I haven't seen this argument elsewhere, but it doesn't mean it hasn't been made. I'm mostly reflecting on what I've seen in a variety of workplaces. Others have already reflected on some of the primary themes that I've seen in the extent literature.

I will start by describing five variants of marginalization in the workplace: marginalization from management positions, new career opportunities, having a voice in decision making, having employment, and participation in the informal social network(s) of the organization. I will then describe several generic clusters of challenges that lead to marginalization, including chronic handicaps, temporal challenges, cultural challenges, and communication competence.

The first marginalization is associated with the management and executive tracks. In most companies anyone who isn't in management is marginalized in at least some ways. Management positions come with information and privileges that other positions do not. There is a conventional wisdom, moreover, that few companies turn people into managers for the first time after they turn 40, so just about anyone over 40 who isn't in management already is marginalized in at least one sense (I noticed that age wasn't one of the criteria for marginalization on your opening list). Fast track management candidates (the ones destined to compete for executive positions) are usually selected out in their late 20's and early 30's. Again, if you aren't on the fast track by 35, you probably will never be unless you start your own organization. This is "generally accepted wisdom" in "how to become an executive" books, but I'm not aware of research that systematically documents or refutes the pattern.

Affirmative action has been effective in changing the face of management (and to a lesser extent executive) marginalization based on race, sex, religion, and other criteria, but it remains that, whatever decision criteria might have been used, 9 out of 10 people in the workplace will be excluded from power positions in organizations (a simple statement of the effective span of managers). Applying the term marginalized here is problematic, however. A fair number of the "excluded" never aspired to management. At least a third of my students, when asked, indicate that they aren't particularly interested in such positions. Is it fair to say that someone has been marginalized when they never sought something? Of course there are always plenty of people who did seek such positions and were excluded for one reason or another. The reasons may be trivial and even peripheral. I can still remember a day when, as the acting director of a span of about 200 employees (all the managers were at an off site meeting), two employee's had a fight that came to blows. I successfully diffused the situation in terms of calming the disputants down and keeping things running, but later decisions (not mine) caused one of the employees to sue the company because they felt marginalized by the outcome. Although my handling of the situation was formally applauded, I was never again invited to act as a "manager" in that company, even when I informally managed a fairly large group of people over a longish span of years.

Herb Simons has said on more than one occasion that leaders are not selected, but rejected (I don't have a reference, but would be surprised if he hasn't published it somewhere, probably with references to others). Almost everything I've ever seen in observing the process of promotion in large organizations is consistent with that premise. When you have to weed down a pool of candidates, pretty much any reason that isn't legally or morally proscribed is sufficient to take a name off of the list. I'm sure the same is true in most academic searches. If you have a pool of 60 applicants for a position, pretty much any reason will do in removing the first fifty or so names from the list. Its only for the last few that you carefully weigh all the pluses and minuses the remaining candidates have, and even then a single issue may be enough to reject a particular candidate. Nobody is trying to marginalize anyone in the pool of applicants. They are simply trying to find the best candidate in a time efficient manner. It remains that most of the candidates were marginalized.

Which introduces two additional levels of marginalization: career opportunities and having a voice in decision making, which I will discuss together. Rejection from the management or executive track isn't the end of new career opportunities. Perhaps the most helpful outcomes of "human resources", "systems", and "cultural" approaches to organizational communication is the general recognition that many decisions that are made in organizations (and many of the more important decisions) are not made by managers. Most organizations recognize that they need to retain and develop their non-management professionals and provide other paths for career advancement, growth, and change. What is less recognized is that many of the key decisions in organizations are made in groups which have their own dynamics of marginalization. Groupthink, for instance, is usefully thought of as the systematic marginalization of those that don't agree with a received perspective. Brainstorming and other group interaction techniques are specifically designed to minimize the possibility of marginalizing individuals and perspectives, but such such techniques often fall victim to executive agendas and rapid decision processes. I don't know if any of this figures in your course plan, but it may be worth considering. Indeed, I'm not aware that anyone has ever collected good data on marginalization of employee's at the levels of technical career path, and it may well make a good research program for someone (and if you are aware of such research, I'd love to know about it). Marginalization of group members seems more likely to have developed a literature.

Layoffs, dismissals, and retirements represent yet another level of marginalization that can be associated with organizations. There seems to be a fairly comprehensive literature associated with this variation of marginalization, but at least for me it seems like the least interesting variant in terms of understanding the dynamics of an organization. Ex-employees are no longer a part of the organization, and while there are implications to that, especially at the level of social networking and the more general morale effects of any layoff, these employees are no longer marginalized within the normal functioning of the organization. It remains, however, that there are interesting research paths here. One path might examine advance indicators of this kind of marginalization. Many people who are laid off or dismissed have a sense of the possibility of being dismissed or laid off before it happens. Some of this may simply be a simple function of fear, uncertainty, and doubt in times of obvious organizational distress. It may be that many people, including many who are not ultimately dismissed or laid off, worry that it might be them. Those that are laid off may make "sense" of the event, at least in part, in recalling the accuracy of their "paranoia". Those that aren't may quickly forget their fears in their relief at still being employed. It may also be the case, however, that there are legitimate indicators of impending layoff or dismissal in other forms of marginalization. Companies and individual managers that have flagged a person as potentially expendable are unlikely to give them opportunities that might lead to career advancement and are more likely to give them assignments that aren't particularly critical to the organization and which deprive the individual of voice. You don't want to develop or depend on resources that you are likely to dispose of, so marginalizations of career and voice seems a likely prelude to dismissal. There are likely to be social side effects as well. Its better not to be personally involved with people that are likely to be dismissed or laid off.

"Social marginalization" can be reasonably expressed at both the individual and group level. Communication network analysis provides us with some wonderful tools for understanding that social marginalization within organizations is a matter of degree, social construction, and to at least some extent, choice. Isolates are the most marginalized individual members of an organization, and achieve their isolation through some combination of social construction and individual choice. Cliques can describe both marginalized and marginalizing groups of people (I wonder if the literature has explored the difference). Some people isolate themselves. Others are shunned, for whatever reason, by groups they would otherwise like to belong to. Perception can play an odd role. People who think of themselves as isolates are at least sometimes seen by others core linkage points in their social networks. It seems to me that, to the extent that any of the "usual suspects" for marginalization in organizations (including the deaf, bereaved, divorced, racial minorities, gays, and cancer patients, among others) really are systematically marginalized in organizations, it should be evident in the structure of social cliques within organizations. Network analysis ought to provide an excellent set tools for testing such things, but this seems so obvious that I'm sure its been done already.

Having described several variants of marginalization, I would like to suggest a set of generic challenges that, to at least some extent, set up these variants of marginalization. I don't see a singular pattern in your list of the potentially marginalized (e.g. deaf, bereaved, divorced, racial minorities, gay, or a cancer patient) relative to social networks, voice in decision making, professional career advancement, or the management and executive tracks. My experience in organizations suggests to me that there are several very different patterns, each of which presents a very different set of challenges to individuals and organizations: chronic physical challenges, temporal challenges, cultural challenges, and communication competences.

The first of these, "chronic physical challenges" (e.g. being deaf, blind, mute, mobility impaired, or user interface impaired, etc.) has been addressed with increasing success over the last two decades with technology and legislation. The deaf, blind, mute, and user interface impaired increasingly are able to overcome their chronic physical challenges using electronic media that enable automated translation of content from one form to another in near real time. Stephen Hawking presents one of the more extreme illustrations of just how effective such devices can be in transforming the possibilities of someone who would otherwise be marginalized from most interaction, organizational or otherwise. More practical evidence of the broad effectiveness of such technologies is evident in my (and I'm sure others) research into the effects of computer conferencing on the blind (see chapter 18 of Legislation has been at least partially successful in reducing the challenges faced by the mobility impaired. Ramps and toilets that accommodate wheelchairs, handicapped parking spaces, and accessible public transit all reduce (without eliminating) the challenges associated with chronic physical handicaps. I don't know the extent to which such accommodations reduce the marginalization of the chronically handicapped, but I know people with all of these handicaps who have successfully advanced their careers, maintained a voice in decision making, and established membership in social cliques within organizations. These are problems that don't go away, however, so the effects they have on marginalization are likely to be enduring.

I would assign to "temporally challenged" those who are bereaved, divorced, seriously injured, seriously ill (cancer is but one example, and hardly the most problematic), newly married, and new parents. The details of the temporal challenge each of these conditions is different, but the primary effect is the same: temporary removal from the pool of candidates that are likely to be considered for new assignments, whether management or technical. Their are obviously gradations here, and some of them are sex typed (women are almost certainly presented with more of a challenge when newly married or a new parent than men are), but the key word here is temporary. A person who recovers from bereavement, stabilizes in new relationships (after a divorce), recovers from serious illness or injury, and gets past the early demands of a new marriage or child rearing will have new opportunities. In my observation, they rarely even see an immediate penalty. One of my closest friends and collegues (now deceased from his cancer), fully recovered from cancer three times before it became untreatable. Each time his (junior executive) position was held for him while he was ill and he was able to return to the position full time.

I would hypothesize, based on my observations and those of others, that the biggest issue, for temporal challenges, is one of timing. Any of these conditions at the wrong time in your late twenties or early thirties will almost certainly exclude an individual from the fast track to the executive ranks of a company (a well documented and very real problem for women who want to have children). Any of the conditions at the wrong time in your thirties will probably deprive an individual of any chance of advancing to senior management levels. Any of these conditions at the wrong time in your late thirties and early forties will probably deprive an individual of their shot at the junior executive ranks. Any of these conditions at the wrong time in your forties will probably derail your chances for a senior executive position. The timing of these temporal challenges probably has similar, but substantially muted, effects on voice and professional career advancement. Its not clear, however, that such events would have any effect on social networks and marginalization within organizations. Indeed, it might well be that temporal challenges will strengthen an individual's meaningful social ties within the organization. It has seemed that way to me in the past.

While I would assign the openly gay to the category of individuals who are "culturally challenged" within organizations, there are strong variations between organizations and over time in terms of what conditions present a cultural challenge. It is obviously the case that being openly gay has very different implications in the Boy Scouts, the Episcopal Church, the U.S. armed forces, and the armed forces of other countries. Some major companies are known to be "gay friendly". Others aren't. I suspect, given current cultural trajectories, that there will be an increasing shift towards being "gay friendly" on the part of most organizations, much as most organizations have already shifted towards eliminating discrimination based on race and gender (which I would also label as cultural challenges).
There are other, more subtle, cultural challenges that individuals face in organizations. Many companies inevitably give more voice and executive opportunities to people who have experience in selling. Individuals who don't want to be marginalized relative to this issue may well need to expand the breadth of their career assignments to include sales. Some companies promote to senior levels from within. In some cases entire industries (certainly including most mass media industries) promote almost entirely from without, hiring the visibly best people away from their competitors. Again, recognizing this reality and its relationship to your career is important to an individual who doesn't want to be marginalized from management, executive, and professional career paths.
A more difficult cultural challenge is observed in the status of employees in multinational corporations who are born, raised, and educated in a different country than that associated with the organization's core culture. The executive ranks of the U.S. subsidiaries of Japanese corporations tend to be at least partially populated by Japanese executives. The Japanese executives are more likely to move into higher level leadership positions in the parent company. The Japanese subsidiaries of U.S. corporations tend to be at least partially populated with American executives. These American executives are more likely to move into higher level leadership positions in their parent companys. These cultural challenges apply to the professional ranks as well. The highest level professional opportunities are more likely to be filled by individuals from the companies dominant culture. People in the companies dominant culture are likely to have more voice in decision making, more understanding of the companies decision processes, and better access to information. Technology can change this equation (again see chapter 18 of Time does change these equations. Older multinationals have increasingly multinational executive teams, but it remains that multinational corporations are, without exception, dominated by a core regional or national language, culture, and senior executive pool.

As I reflect on the who's and how's of marginalization of people within the workplace, however, none of this seems as important as the social pressures that operate within any collective. There are a huge collection of reasons why individuals are marginalized within organizations, and at least some of those hinge on interpersonal skills and perceptions. The behavior of children is instructive in this regard, as the systematic patterns of marginalization that occur in junior high school have perhaps subtle analogs in the world of working adults. People are less likely to be dismissed as nerds or geeks in the workplace, but they are likely to be marginalized if they are perceived as working too hard or making their coworkers look bad by comparison. People who are seen as "brown nosing" the boss may well be marginalized socially, even as (and perhaps especially because) they are perceived as being more likely to be a boss in the future. People who move into the management ranks will experience changes is their prior social relationships, and may be marginalized relative to their old social networks. Among those who bid for leadership in group decision making, some will succeed. Those who don't are likely to be marginalized by the group, especially if they are vociferous in advocating positions. People who succeed in enough groups may be more likely to be flagged for formal leadership positions. People who have been marginalized in enough groups may find that it has broader negative effects on career opportunities. Various communication competences/intelligences seem likely to have effects in this regard. I would guess, however, that different forms of communication competence would matter in differing degrees to different kinds of marginalization (social, professional, managerial, voice) within organizations.

The most difficult class of individuals to place, in this typology of challenges, are older workers, especially those over 50. Age would seem, by definition to be a temporal challenge, but unlike other temporal challenges it doesn't go away. No one "recovers" from being 50, even if they suffer no obvious mental or physical deterioration as a result of the transition. To the extent that people believe that, as a simple function of age, an individual can't "learn new tricks", be creative, or remain productive, age acts as a handicap that technology can't fix. Exceptions to such belief are legion, and a recent study even demonstrated that it marriage rather than age that turns off genius, but a culture that treats age as a handicap creates a cultural challenge that may be difficult to surmount. Legislative attempts to reverse discrimination against older workers has only been partially successful in protecting the rights of those who are already employed. There are well understood and easily implemented means by which older employees can be laid off and deprived of promotions and raises without violating the law. Nothing in current law can reverse the rejection of an "overqualified" older candidate for "entry level" or an allegedly "out of date" older candidate for a position that requires experience. So long as age is not the specific issue cited, almost any reasonable issue will legally justify such decisions.

In the end, I might have described Dr. Hastings course somewhat differently. "The focus of the course," I might have said, "is communication dynamics with people whose distinctive life challenges potentially complicate career prospects and constrain social interaction within an organization. How, for example, does communication change when those Goffman would call "normals" need to interact with and support people who face the challenges of chronic physical handicaps (deaf, blind, etc.), temporal dislocations (bereavement, divorce, illness), deficiencies in communication skills, and cultural assumptions (sex, race, religion, sexual preference, age, and secondary cultures)."

I don't know if any of this helps or would have helped, and it may be I've added nothing interesting, but the question is an interesting one. Thanks for raising it.