The impact of being excluded


I have asserted that inclusion is a stretch exercise for many of us because we are hardwired to be exclusive and biased. We look after our in-group members and are distant from those we see as members of out-groups.

That was all fine and good when we lived in communities made up of in-group members – and we could reliably work in work cultures made up of people like us. But we don’t do that anymore. In NSW, in the major population centres we live and work with people from diverse backgrounds and life experiences. 

We are also hardwired to crave inclusion and belonging. Some of us belong to a large group occupying a defined space, but we no longer live among them. Some of us belong to a minority group – one that does not exist together in one space as a single community, but which comes together now and then – or which connects online. Others belong to a group so small the chances of most of the members getting together are remote.

The key is what group/s do we primarily identify with? We all belong to multiple groups. We have multiple layers to our identities. Here I am not talking just about the well-recognised diversity classifications – but identities based on hobbies and pastimes or politics, to name a few. When you say “I am…” you are articulating part of your identity.

Identity means more when you are away from your primary group

Back in 1996 I relocated to the UK with every intention of staying there. One day I was sitting in a pub and heard an Australian accent. I immediately sought the source out. She was from Perth and was living nearby, just one town away (that’s nearby in England). She’d not heard an Australian accent for a long time either.

What we both discovered was that coming across somebody who understood our story had a huge psychological impact. It was a huge relief. I was surprised, and when I got home, I became aware that on every wall of my flat I had an Australian image. Even though I was in England I was still inhabiting Australia.

I was born in Northern Ireland and had always said I was Irish. I was entitled to say that, but I wasn’t. I had migrated to Australia when I was 4. The only Irish thing about me was my history. Before I came back to Australia I travelled to Ireland, and back to my birthplace. Not only did nobody know my story, it was also incomprehensible to them. Had I chosen to stay in Ireland or the UK I would have had to have developed another identity and would have had to stow my Australian identity away. Let me be clear, being an Australian and being an Aussie in the UK are not the same thing.

If you are a migrant or a refugee, and you come to Australia, you have the same challenge. It is good to be with people who know, or can understand, your story. But you also need an identity that connects you with where you are. Perhaps, to be accepted in your new identity you have to stow away valued parts of your old identity – beliefs, traditions, dress etc.

The experience of being you is what makes up your identity. Sometimes being you changes. My trans brother went from being my sister to being my brother. He can be my brother to other people, but it isn’t safe for him to be trans. In fact, it’s dangerous in some circumstances. He can be himself only if he is just that safe bit when he is away from family and friends who know his whole stroy. There are few people with whom he can be fully himself – but then, I guess, that applies to most of us too. You don’t need a radical attribute to make you feel uncomfortable about being wholly who you identify as.

My disability does not identify me, but I can be identified because of my disability – the bloke with the blue crutches. My disability is also part of my identity because I have experiences that are peculiar to it, but it does not define who I am. And yet, when I am excluded because of my disability there are times when it feels like my whole self is being excluded.

Awhile back my colleagues elected to celebrate Christmas at a bowling club, with bowling a major activity. I like bowling. I watched a lot of it on telly and had planned to take it up when I retired. These days I can’t hold a bowling ball with any control. 

I elected not to go the bowling club. This was because I didn’t want to make it obvious that I had been excluded from a group activity, by accident. I wanted my colleagues to relax at the end of a hard year, and not feel bad about picking an activity I could not participate in. I knew some would. They were my friends, and they would have felt bad.

Sometimes we can be excluded because of our disability in ways that are demeaning and offensive. Brain research shows that exclusion triggers a threat response. The same part of our brain that registers pain also registers exclusion. When that is extended over time psychological and physical harm will be done.

We all have a sense of identity that is essential to us. And we all crave belonging and acceptance. When that identity is assailed or we are excluded it hurts us.

Identity at work

There is an ideal – bring your whole self to work. Within the constraints of workplace decorum that is a fine ideal. We have multiple layers to our sense of identity from which we can fashion an identity we want to express at work. If we work fulltime that’s a substantial portion of our year – about 28% of our waking time, not including a commute.

There’s a difference between who we want to be, and who we must present as to survive with some level of acceptance and inclusion in the workplace. For some the gap between want and must is acceptably narrow. For others it is a wide gap. What widens the gap comes down to several things:

  • A dominant workplace culture that does not accommodate alternative or diverse expressions of identity, and which is not expressly hostile.
  • A dominant workplace culture that does not accommodate alternative or diverse expressions of identity, and which is expressly hostile.
  • A leadership culture that fosters and allows discrimination or bullying by a minority, including managers and team leaders.
  • A leadership culture that espouses inclusion but does not facilitate it or practice it in any consistent or coherent way.

The people most vulnerable to adverse experiences are members of minority diversity groups. They possess personal attributes that are critical to their identity because of their membership of a diversity group (or several) and which cannot be readily concealed. It is notable that the 2021 NSW State of the Sector report identified people with disability and Aboriginal people as the two groups most susceptible to bullying. Embodied attributes cannot be concealed, and that exposure renders individuals vulnerable to unintended and intended acts of exclusion – of which bullying is the worst.

How does it feel to be excluded?

In the workplace we have an innate need to belong to a group or a team as a valued member – with our preferred expression of identity embraced and honoured. When that doesn’t happen, we are distressed, and that can lead to emotional, or psychological, injury.

Over my time as DEN Chair, I was involved in a number of interventions to support staff with disability experiencing discrimination and bullying. Some of those staff were at breaking point emotionally. They had made attempts to end the bullying; and matters only got worse. All are injured, some badly. Here are a few quotes from a few:

A: Because of my disability I have been the victim of bullying many times. Bullying is counterproductive; it robs the victim of their dignity; it affects their health and emotional well-being.  After I was bullied, I used all my leave and because of this I lost financially.  I was an emotional mess for many months. I have been to several Counsellors, but I can’t seem to move on. I feel like I have to try to do something about this so nobody else has to be humiliated and hurt like I have been.

B: The unjust treatment perpetrated against me by my manager and the inactions of (their) direct line manager had a significant impact on my emotional health and safety.  The long-standing mistreatment disturbed and interfered with my usual functioning and happiness; and impacted my professional reputation. What was worse than that was the response of the very people and processes that are supposed to be there to protect staff by fairly investigating complaints. 

The failed response by senior management (and other areas responsible) has had a greater impact on me than the long-standing mistreatment and actions I endured by my (then) manager. I don’t know if I’ll ever heal from the loss of faith in the system and people that were supposed to ensure I was safe. 

C: I have become obsessive about trying to stop XXX from bullying staff. XX is a serial bully and usually picks on people that XX considers vulnerable. I have witnessed XX harm so many people over the years.  This “haunts me” and keeps me awake at night. Also, I live in fear that XX may start to bully me again.

D: This pain caused by discrimination and bullying is not something that is healed by the well-intentioned announcements about inclusion and equity, at times rhetorically, by the Department. It is an injury that for many lingers, for some decades or a lifetime. A heartbreaking thought to suppose that for others, too much to bear living.

Exclusion is a form of assault

Bullying is an assault, psychologically speaking. It is the worst form of exclusion because it entails emotional violence. It says the victim is unworthy of respect, or compassion. They do not deserve to maintain their dignity. This is a terrible thing to do to an adult person who, outside of work, will be a valued member of a family or community. That aspect of their identity cannot be submerged at work.

Passive exclusion is less violent, but no less damaging. Small acts of exclusion accumulate, and it does not matter whether they are intentional or inadvertent. If you exclude, you can contribute to an accumulation of harm. 

I don’t mean for the reader to feel an obligation to be a friend to everyone. That’s not what inclusion means. It means in the context of a workplace that there is equal freedom to engage and participate – and everyone knows it and feels confident in engaging and participating.

Today’s diverse culture means that in our workplaces we will encounter people who are unfamiliar to us; and who would once have been an outsider to be avoided and shunned. I grew up with the legacy of a Northern Irish Protestant hatred of Catholics. I had to reject my father’s influence. My mother thought the Chinese market gardeners were “dirty” and warned me against eating Chinese food. My parents were raised in a culture that excluded with righteous certainty. It didn’t translate well in the world I was growing up in.

Things have evolved. Now we share the same in-group – as colleagues and maybe as team members in the same agency and the same sector. It doesn’t matter what group you are from outside of work. At work you form a new in-group randomly made of people whose background and origins have nothing to do with whether they are entitled to be a full member of your work in-group. That’s the difference. That’s the stretch – embrace the diverse and the unfamiliar.

The duty of equity

As we evolve as a culture, we transgress against and violate old truths that affirm it is okay to reject another because of some attribute that marked them as a member of an out-group.

My stepfather cannot accept his trans son because his Christian community does not. He had to choose between his child who has ‘violated God’s law’ and a community which supports him at a deep existential level. He has chosen his community. His community of faith is free to make a distinction that excludes others.

The NSW public sector is not so free. It must accept everybody. This is a profoundly novel state of affairs. Discrimination was routine, and the acceptable norm not so long ago. Now it is not. This change places a huge demand upon sector leaders, and I don’t think the magnitude of that demand is fully comprehended. It places a huge demand on staff in general too, but in a very different way.

The NSW Premier’s Priorities include increasing the proportion of women and Aboriginal people in senior leadership roles. That is because white Anglo middle class males have long been the majority of senior leaders. That’s not a demographic group highly exposed to the demographic diversity of the NSW population. But you need some significant degree of openness that comes from such exposure to comprehend what exclusion is, and what it does.

Sector leaders and managers must embrace this evolution, and in fact lead it. They must ensure their actions exclude no one; and do no harm. Unless they do that change is going to be slow and painful, if not catastrophic, to many.

This isn’t a matter of choice. The obligation of the public service is to serve the whole community with equal justice, respect, and compassion – whether staff member or service user/recipient.

The power of the bully

Inclusion isn’t a ‘nice to have’. At its fundamental level it is an inalienable right built into the moral fabric of our culture. We have done this via legislation and policy. 

So why do some members of the public sector feel they are exempt from an obligation to conform? More importantly, why do we accept a public sector leadership culture that accommodates instances of such self-exemption as fair and reasonable?

Studies show that most bullying is perpetrated by line and senior managers. Bullying by peers is possible only when management is weak or complicit. So, we can safely say that bullying is perpetrated or facilitated by managers/leaders.

That means either a lack of awareness of the duty of care, or a decision to assert personal exemption from it. Lack of awareness can be addressed by providing developmental opportunity. Though why one would imagine that such lack of awareness is acceptable in manager or executive grades is beyond me. 

Self-determined exemption from required standards by managers or executives strikes me as being utterly indefensible – especially when it results in psychological injury.


Exclusion is either intentional or accidental. Accidental exclusion can be remedied by interventions and support. Intentional exclusion cannot be placed in the same category. An act of intentional inclusion by a manager or executive demands a deeper look. Ineptitude or deliberate self-exemption? 

None of the voices I quoted above concerned ‘accidental’ or ‘inadvertent’ exclusion. The bullying was perpetrated over time. At best it was reflexive, suggesting an unconscious underlying psychological state. At worst it was intentional, suggesting the manager was on the toxic end of the psychopathy spectrum. 

In any case the perpetrator is not fit for purpose in a management/leadership role. The resistance to holding these perpetrators to account comes from more senior managers. The evidence this is the case is beyond dispute. When a manager becomes a member of the management in-group, the group will protect its own. Staff members below the manager class become the out-group. This is a hierarchical complexity that is insufficiently recognised.

It is also a recipe for disaster. There is a remedy, which will be resisted with great determination up the ladder of control. Change must come from the top. Until, and unless, it does abuse of the non-management out-group will not abate.

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