Compliments of Fred Seibert via Flickr

Humiliation is defined as the emotion you feel when your status is lowered in front of others” (Whitbourne, 2014).

A splat of conversational spit up. Humiliation, embarrassment, cringe worthy moments etched forever into your mind, festering in an attic full of memories – the first thing you most likely retrieve before you speak. A surge of adrenaline that creates a permanent “tattoo in the brain” which serves to warn us of impending danger (Pearson & Porath, 2009).

An ever present reminder that risk (that can eradicate one’s social standing and esteem in the eyes of other people) is ever present. The fact that some persons feel comfortable posting anonymous smear (which accomplishes the same objective 24/7 into perpetuity) astounds me. Have electronic screens (which mask our identity) stripped us of the responsibility to behave with decency? Has the Internet debased us to the point where fellow humans are now reduced to mere points and clicks?

Bullying feels bad primarily because it catches us by surprise, especially at work – where we expect collegiality from the outset. No one anticipates wolf pack gang mobbing. Junior employees are many times cannon fodder, because they have little recourse. Running it up the boss’s flagpole incites vengeance, and more of the same (assuming supervisors choose to do anything, or are not active participants in the problem). The only remaining option is silent assent in one’s own verbal whipping. In a recent interview, Billy Bush lamented he did not have the character to change topics from lurid commentary. The crux of bullying occurs in work corridors with people standing by idly, gawking for amusement or sheer entertainment value – cheering to laugh and play along because it is simply “easier,” and they enjoy the vicarious power experienced at someone else’s expense – along with the feeling of camaraderie and protection they attain from the chief bully in charge.

Apart from the humiliation and embarrassment, bullying makes us feel bad because it destroys our connective fabric – eradicating “the familial” on which we rely for support. On a personal note, I find it both intriguing and appalling that humans can exhibit the savagery of apes. Working in a place in which you were undone equates with sleeping on a urine soaked bed.

Perhaps humiliation is the most intense emotion because (for the moment) you are stripped bare in front of your peers, with no place to hide; punishment administered in the bazaar of office politics. Common decency demands an apology from offending parties – although the most brutish of abusers self-righteously claim “foul” through blaming targets. The message to onlookers is unmistakable: jump on the bully’s bandwagon, or be bludgeoned! How can firms capitalize on diversity if they acknowledge only a sliver of their diverse labor pool? This problem is compounded in a multicultural workplace, in which positions of power are concentrated (e.g., see a Fortune article that reports the largest portion of senior level executive positions (33.6%) is held by white men).

Misunderstandings of fundamental cultural differences can result in trampled feelings. The following scenario illustrates the polar opposite mindsets of someone from a collectivist (group oriented) culture, and someone from a more “me-centered” individualistic norm:


A Collectivist shopper arrives fifteen minutes early, sitting in the store parking lot so that she will be first in line at the Customer Service desk. When the store opens, she spots a sign that reads “Ring the bell for assistance.”

[Collectivist thought process: I am going to wait until the clerk turns around so I don’t embarrass him by ringing a bell – he must find it demeaning to be summoned that way].

A few minutes later, an Individualist arrives. She turns to the Collectivist and queries, “Did you ring the bell?” to which the Collectivist replies “No.”

[Individualist thought process: She must not be ready, otherwise she would have been more assertive in summoning for help].

When the clerk does appear, the Individualist immediately launches ahead: “I thought I could just drop this off, I have a 7:00 a.m. appointment,” to which the clerk explains her specific issue is typically handled on the spot. She then asks “How long will this take?”

When he responds with “5 minutes,” she turns to the Collectivist and says “I thought I could just drop this off.”

Collectivist: “What happens now?”

Individualist: “It’ll just take 5 minutes.”

[Individualist thought process: “What happens now?” must mean assent, because surely someone who did not approve would have voiced a contrary opinion].

The clerk fulfills the Individualist’s order. Before she leaves, she turns to the Collectivist and with gratitude says “Again, thank you.”

Translation: the Collectivist feels sideswiped, because she expected the Individualist to be proactively civil; to indicate to the clerk that she herself had indeed arrived first, instead of ‘bulldozing’ ahead with her own agenda. In collective society people are trained to look out for one another as a way of life – versus primarily looking out for oneself.

Collectivist, to the clerk after the Individualist patron left: “You may not have realized it, but I was here before that person.”

Individualist Clerk: “I was expecting someone to ring the bell.”

Of course you were! Individualistic cultures are more literal (low context) as opposed to figurative (high context), in which people are expected to read between the lines, and to conform to unstated rules of behavior and decorum.


In collectivism, a sense of community precludes behavior viewed as self-serving and/or self-centered. It is rare in one specific collectivist country to see employees (who work for a specific car company) on the street wearing their uniform – because it is considered “bragging.” Similarly, singly employees out for individual rewards is a source of worker embarrassment.

Ignorance of cultural differences causes workplace disruption – especially from cultures that believe in practical jokes, and no holds barred “tell it like it is” smack talk. Supervisors must be especially careful because a positive correlation exists between high power distance (an assumption of unequal ranking) and collectivism, such that lower ranking employees may be reticent to speak.

The concept of face (saving oneself from embarrassment) is all important in a large section of the world in which people step lightly. In some cultures this belief is codified into law: in Mexico for example, political attack ads have been outlawed. Furthermore, “An employee who works at least for a month for an employer is presumed to be a permanent employee.” The idea of corporate communalism, or family superimposed at work, suggests that business relations (to be successful), are preceded by caring for one’s peers. Expectations thwarted may cause productivity to fall.

So what is an employer to do?

  • Try the velvet glove approach, in which you first and foremost develop a rapport. Once you are on a solid relational footing, then you can engage employees in fact finding missions to unearth problems. Friendly back and forth questioning (as opposed to interrogation or accusation) will likely produce positive results, and more importantly, worker loyalty.
  • Exercise your EQ. Dexterity in reading non-verbals enables us to ascertain (quickly) if we hurt someone’s feelings, or if they feel uncomfortable with “friendly” repartee. Scanning the room, helping employees feel included by soliciting their opinions (instead of letting angry mobs rule the meeting) are not only the right things to do, but a means for companies to capitalize on diverse employee perspectives. See The chemistry of connection


References and Related postings:

A Stinging Office Memo Boomerangs; Chief Executive is criticized after upbraiding workers by e-mail

Don’t touch that send button

Emails are forever

Managing Surface level diversity as a business imperative. Gilbert, J. A. (2017). Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Business and Management

McTaggart, L. The Bond: How to fix your broken-down world. New York, NY: Free Press.

Pearson, C., & Porath, C. (2009). The cost of bad behavior: How incivility is damaging your business and what to do about it. New York, NY: Portfolio.



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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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