The original meaning of the verb “to marginalize” was this: “to write notes in the margin of.” While that definition is, today, obsolete, it provides a helpful visual for the modern meaning of the term.
Marginalization, as we currently define it, is the act of relegating someone to an unimportant or powerless position—making them feel, if you will, like they’re the notes squeezed into the margins of society. Scrawled. Practically unreadable. Small.
At work, marginalization happens because a person or group; usually one that’s in power, like a manager or dominant social group; has negative preconceived notions about a fellow employee or direct report. They might believe the employee is lazy or incompetent or just plain dislike them—even if, and sometimes especially if, the employee is good at what they do.
This is a form of prejudice, and left unchecked, it breeds a toxic work environment for the marginalized employee: The manager might find ways to isolate the employee, excluding them from meetings or even moving them to a different location in the office. The manager might also fail to recognize the employee’s achievements, bully them, or be disrespectful in order to make them feel less valuable.
Sounds terrible, right? It is. And although it can happen to anyone, it most often happens to groups already fighting uphill battles in our workplaces—women, people of color, people with disabilities, people who are overweight, etc. A direct result of leeches like racism and sexism, marginalization is both a barrier to advancement and happiness and it’s emblematic of a work environment that’s exclusive and discriminatory.
Examples of marginalization
Marginalization can be obvious, or it can be very subtle, almost impossible to prove—or even convince yourself that it’s happening. Here are a few examples of marginalization at work:
Assuming someone will act a certain way based on stereotypes about their identity (aspects such as race, gender, sexuality, etc.)
Denying professional opportunities because of aspects of someone’s identity (racism, sexism, ableism)
Not providing equal access to resources because of someone’s identity
Derogatory language or bullying
Assuming someone got where they are only because they “check a diversity box”
Singling someone out because of their religious beliefs or cultural practices
Refusing to recognize good work or consistently taking credit for another’s work
Finding ways to isolate someone, like purposefully leaving them out of meetings
The behavior usually results in marginalized employees feeling invisible, as if their skills are unwelcome or unnecessary on their team or in their company.
Writer Jeanette LeBlanc penned perhaps one of the most eloquent quotes about marginalization, both in terms of how it affects those who are marginalized and flies under the radar.
“You will quite likely encounter the notion that we create our own reality,” she writes. “This can be an empowering idea and also true is so many ways. But it is also entitled and arrogant and can quickly move into a dangerous form of gaslighting. When this happens it is an act of shaming and a violence done. Because f****d up things happen. F****d up and violent things. And to say that we create the entirely of our own realities is a way this world will have people—especially marginalized groups of people–hold responsibility for the circumstances in which they were without power. Guard yourself against perpetuating this, and hold yourself tenderly and solidly if it is ever pushed upon you.”
Effects of marginalization
Marginalization can have damaging effects on individuals' mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing. Faced with exclusion, marginalized employees often become disengaged with their work and even more isolated. They report feelings of anger, fear, depression, anxiety, sadness, and stress, all centered around something that’s out of their control: someone else’s blatant prejudice.
For companies wanting to stay relevant, marginalization is a cancer. It silences the voices of diverse groups by “othering” them. Marginalized employees begin to look for work elsewhere, and with their departure go diverse ideas and perspectives that could help companies evolve.
How to deal with marginalization at work
If you believe you’re being marginalized, there are steps you can take to better your circumstances.
If you know that you’re being marginalized because of your race, gender, age, sexuality, or another protected aspect of your identity, then follow the proper steps for dealing with discrimination. Talk to your boss or a manager you trust, document every discussion and every instance of discrimination, report everything to HR, and reach out to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) if necessary.
You have the legal right to a safe work environment, and if a company is serious about making sure all employees feel welcome, they’ll take steps to educate teams on unconscious bias and inclusion.
However, if you find you’re unsure why you’re being marginalized (you can’t pinpoint specific instances where someone mentioned your age, race, etc.), then do some self-reflection. Social or professional exclusion and marginalization are not always the same thing. You could be putting people off by being too negative, talking too much, or boasting. You might also be avoiding socializing and could try connecting with others before jumping to conclusions.
Try attending company events or happy hours with coworkers. Ask someone you admire to get coffee. Join or create a support group in your company to build up your community.
Lastly, if none of these options, reconsider whether your company’s culture is right for you. You should not have to be the one to leave, no, but there are companies out there that will treat you with kindness and respect. Empower yourself to leave.