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Workplace Bullying: An Ambiguous Loss

The five shattered assumptions of workplace abuse.

Key points

  • Before experiencing trauma, most people subscribe to three assumptions: The world is benevolent, the world is meaningful, and the self is worthy.
  • Ambiguous loss is a loss that is undefined, borderless, and without resolution.
  • Workplace bullying shatters people's assumptions, resulting in ambiguous loss.

To be ambiguous is to exist outside definition, to hang indefinitely in suspension, dangling above certainty with no exit plan. To reside inside the nebulous is to remain undefined, and destruction without borders is difficult to clean up. Consequently, one is relegated to living in the muck, fully enmeshed in the trauma.

Nick Fewings/Unsplash
Source: Nick Fewings/Unsplash

Ambiguous loss, according to researcher and therapist Pauline Boss (2021), is “a loss that remains unclear and without official verification or immediate resolution, which may never be achieved.”

Workplace bullying is a type of ambiguous loss. It masquerades as rumors, gossip, gaslighting, and exclusion—but at its core, it is about an undefined deprivation. However, often the loss is defined by the organization as a forfeiture, penalty, or payment for the victim’s wrongdoing. And it is this false casting, in the form of character assassination, that drops the victim into a spiral of shame, a centrifuge of internal turmoil.

But the bullying is not the target’s fault, and “blame the victim” is an age-old strategy used to escape culpability. Healing, therefore, rests inside redefining the tragedy, for it is indeed tragic to disassemble another’s humanity. The real loss, however, is not what was done outwardly to the victim, though that devastation is certainly real and significant, but the internal losses incurred as the victim’s frameworks for viewing the world are chipped and then broken. Specifically, Janoff-Bulman (1992)—Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst—describes three personal frameworks or assumptions that are altered in the aftermath of a traumatic event in which one is purposely victimized by another who intends them harm.

Three Types of Ambiguous Losses

  1. The World Is Benevolent: Many people subscribe to a belief in a benevolent world, drawing comfort from a philosophy that the universe is working in their favor and the future is ripe with possibilities. In the office, this translates as making the most gracious assumptions surrounding the decisions and actions of colleagues, believing they have their best interests at heart.
  2. The World Is Meaningful: To curb anxieties and live a peaceful existence, people take solace in a certain level of predictability, believing if they do “action A” they can count on “action B” to follow. At work, this presents as an invisible contract between employer and employee, an unwritten agreement that if employees show up as their best selves, do exceptional work, and are dedicated to supporting the organization’s mission, in return, their institution will recognize their efforts and reward them accordingly.
  3. The Self Is Worthy: A belief in one's inherent self-worth is an essential tool for successfully navigating the tumultuous waters of daily existence. For most people, self-worth is greatly impacted by how they are treated by others. When their boss offers a promotion, colleagues clamor to partner on impactful projects, and recognition is bestowed from professional organizations—they experience a positive sense of self-worth. However, allowing external forces to define their value makes them vulnerable to the whims of people who may not have their best interests at heart.

So, what happens when employees’ reputations are disassembled by an organization that claims to hold itself to a high ethical standard, colleagues they confided in breech their sacred truth and use their inner reflections to sink them outwardly, and the image they once admired in the mirror is no longer recognizable as a result of the character assassination? At that moment, their belief in a benevolent world, a predictable storyline, and an inner self that possesses inherent value splinters and then shatters. Such a disassembling results in a colossal sense of ambiguous loss.

What Do These Losses Look Like on the Job?

Reflecting upon my own experiences, and drawing upon the findings of my 4-year research study, in which I collected the stories of over 200 targets across the world and conducted over 50 follow-up interviews, each one lasting from 1 to 3 hours, 5 types of ambiguous losses emerged as salient themes. The identified losses were neither simplistic nor expected. In other words, it was not the surface-level hurts, like snide remarks and job loss, that led to the victims’ dismantling, but the existential crises that shattered their assumptions.

Ambiguous Loss #1: They Didn’t See It Coming Soon Enough

Most people arrive at a point in their careers when they feel like they have a metaphorical finger on the pulse of their organization, an understanding of the political workings at their job, and a reasonable expectation of an invisible contract—stating that when they do exceptional work and treat others with compassion, their efforts will be rewarded and their jobs secure. Therefore, they make the most gracious assumptions about people’s intentions and actions, giving colleagues the benefit of the doubt when in hindsight, doubt and suspension were warranted.

Ambiguous Loss #2: Human Resources Acted Inhumanely

Though most victims of workplace abuse try to handle the calamity first by directly addressing the bullying with the bully and the bully’s manager, there often comes a point they feel compelled to reach out to Human Resources for support. Though Human Resources certainly excels at many of the jobs they are charged to do, a conflict of interest arises when they are asked to protect an employee who is being bullied by upper management. The vast majority of the over 200 people who participated in my study shared HR dismissed their concerns, and most suffered significant negative repercussions for their effort to shine a light on larger institutional problems.

Ambiguous Loss #3: People They Confided in Betrayed Their Trust

It is not unusual for victims of workplace bullying to attempt to share their story with a trusted colleague in the hopes of garnering support and advice. Unfortunately, many report that the information they shared in confidence was twisted and disseminated to those leading or involved in the attacks. This violation of trust left the victims feeling alone and exposed.

Ambiguous Loss #4: Close Colleagues Turned Their Backs

Work is more than a building where projects get done. It is an ad-hoc family of sorts where lasting friendships are formed with people colleagues come to count on. Therefore, when a victim of workplace abuse comes under attack, she naturally turns to her inner work circle for compassionate care. However, those requests are often rebuked, as confidants join ranks with the oppressor in an effort to shield themselves from being targeted next, and sometimes join in on the attacks. This unexpected betrayal leaves victims with a great sense of distrust and abandonment.

Ambiguous Loss #5: The Helpers Declined to Help

After attempting to address the workplace abuse directly with the bully and reaching out to Human Resources for support to no avail, many victims will eventually try to seek help from the CEO, Board of Directors, or other people in top leadership roles with the power to impact positive change. Victims enter those meetings, with emails and other documentation of the abuse in hand, self-assured that if they tell their story the person in power will directly address the abuse. Much to their surprise and dismay, however, most victims report those in top leadership positions are more concerned with preserving their organization's outward image than speaking up for justice. Consequently, the leaders attempt to silence the victims by pushing them out. When the helpers fail to help, the victim loses faith in a meaningful and ethical world.

In closing, when we think about the devastating consequences of workplace bullying, we often zoom in on the bully’s behavior, attributing the victim’s destruction to the bully’s masterful yielding of the weapons of gossip, manipulation, sabotage, and exclusion. However, though the bully’s calculated attacks are responsible for the surface-level wounds, most victims come to see that the true damage rests inside the unexpected and ambiguous losses, or shattered assumptions, circling around the themes of a benevolent world, a meaningful and predictable existence, and a positive barometer reading of self-worth. Defining these ambiguous losses empowers victims to make sense of their story by giving a definitive shape to the calamity.


Boss, P. (2021). The myth of closure. W. W. Norton & Company.

Janoff-Bulman, R. (2010). Shattered Assumptions: Towards a new psychology of Trauma. Simon and Schuster.

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