Duffy’s going back to work. Awkward.

A specialist in dysfunctional workplaces on what awaits Duffy when he heads back to the office: ‘Can we all pretend that didn’t happen?’

Mike DuffyNow that Mike Duffy has been cleared of all 31 charges against him, he’s free to return to his job in the Senate. But in spite of Justice Charles Vaillancourt’s emphatic judgment in his favour, after a high-profile trial during which Duffy’s accusers held him up as a mascot of decadence and fecklessness in the Red Chamber, it seems like it might be a wee bit fraught for him to rejoin the fold.

But if research on workplace dynamics is any indication, what Duffy can expect is sort of like the plot of a 1980s sitcom in which the teen protagonist suffers some social indignity: it will be weird—maybe even painful—for a little while, but most likely, everything will settle down by the final commercial break.

“In the short term, you think. ‘Okay, this guy’s going down, we’re not going to see him again, and Heaven forbid I get associated,’ ” says Sandra Robinson, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business. “But now this person’s coming back in and it’s, ‘Can we all pretend that didn’t happen?’ That’s the only way you cope.”

Robinson specializes in dysfunctional workplace behaviour (an awful lot of people she mentions this to insist she needs to come to their office), ostracism, trust and what’s known as “territoriality.” That’s the human tendency to demonstrate ownership of positive things—my team, my mentor, my friend with the cool job, my shiny new car—as a way to broadcast our identity to the world. “We know we get judged by the company we keep, in both good and bad ways,” she says.

But while the negative side of that phenomenon hasn’t been studied, Robinson believes “disownership” works similarly, in reverse. So if, for instance, your co-worker was hauled out on a very public carpet to answer for a bunch of issues that tied in pretty closely with how your own job works, you would probably try to distance yourself.

Another reason why there could be an awkward social hangover when Duffy initially rejoins his Senate colleagues is that people just don’t like conflict. It makes us feel all sorts of bad things, and one easy way to block that out is just to avoid the person at the root of it all—at least at first. “I could see how opportunities could disappear or connections might disappear,” Robinson says. “Everybody’s friendly to your face, but it’s funny—you don’t get invited to things anymore.”

However, human nature strongly suggests things will pretty quickly revert to normal for Duffy. Simply put, treating someone like a pariah is exhausting. We operate much of the time on social “scripts” we learn from the time we’re young, Robinson says: you pass a co-worker in the hallway, so you say hi and talk about the weather. “Those are automated, very easy to do,” she says. “When we engage in ostracism, we actually have to shut off those scripts and remember to avoid someone, to not talk to them: ‘Oh, I’m not gonna get off the elevator, there they are, I don’t want to see them.’ ” It just eats up a lot of energy, and when the initial emotion that motivated the blacklisting has faded, for most people, it’s just not worth the effort.

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