Stealth Shunning

When younger administrators try to usher out older workers without overt firing.

Posted Aug 12, 2020

COVID-19 has changed the face of work and managing work. Jobs have been lost, and people laid off, fired, or held in uncertain job suspensions. Older workers may now face these challenges in less obvious ways—stealth shunning as a prelude to their termination. 

Created by author, Frank John Ninivaggi MD
Stealth Shunning
Source: Created by author, Frank John Ninivaggi MD

Stealth shunning is the implicit and silent distancing of the shunned person from all or most interactions with the group. Mutual collaboration and productivity gradually fade to negligible levels. The shunned person loses a sense of engagement, team productivity, and self-esteem

Stealth shunning, psychologically disenfranchising, makes “voluntarily” leaving the option rather than continuing when one’s value is questioned. Many competent older workers desire to continue in their profession. Thus, job termination for these workers has become a stealth procedure—firing in a “polite” yet uncompassionate, if not deceitful, way.

Ageism, the negative bias against the elderly, is a real factor in today’s workforce. Those reaching older age have been and continue to be seen as less capable. An emerging younger generation is maturing. Assuming more executive roles, new leadership appears to want to “clean house” and establish a more youthful, perhaps more vibrant workforce. 

Employers compelled to rejuvenate may sacrifice real value for a younger appearance. Thus, stealth shunning can be an informal, silent social banning with the aim of the greater good its instigation. Unconscious guilt with conscious avoidance and distancing reinforces the shunning. Force is never a substitute for diplomacy in protecting mental equanimity.

What Is Workplace Shunning?

Shunning is exclusion. Deliberately ignoring someone who was once a member of a workgroup is workplace ostracism. Shunning entails silence, minimal or no dialogue, closed doors, whispering, and no eye contact. This exclusion annuls one’s sense of belonging and leads to devalued work efforts, success, and a loss of esteem reinforcement.

Shunning is social rejection and interpersonal distancing intentionally directed against someone deemed undesirable as part of a group. The shunned person feels the loss, disengagement, shame, punishment, isolation, and disempowerment.

Working in a job over the years creates a routine that ordinarily is marked with accomplishment and success. The psychological results of stealth shunning remove its target from interpersonal and job engagement. With an already implicit feeling of impending detachment, the reality of social distancing expands, leading to depressive loss. Without the rewards of team camaraderie and tasks well done, negative emotions reinforce demoralization.

Shunning is aggressionbullying inflicted on another. It is a punishment. What makes this maneuver “stealth” is that it happens for a while before the victim realizes what is happening.

Before this realization, disorientation, even questioning reality perceptions, sets in. The aims created by stealth shunning become an ever-emerging part of the victim’s persona. This demoralized condition further reinforces escorting the victim out of a job.

For the older person in this situation, discussions with an objective observer can help restore dispassionate reorientations. This shoring up of one’s “reality sense” is a first step in taking control of a potentially disarming situation. Going from a passive to an active grasp of circumstances strengthens decisiveness and self-confidence. Reframing social belonging to real social supports lessens isolation and disempowerment. 

One’s new perspective broadens to contexts beyond current ones. This outlook opens vistas for new endeavors. If one does leave the job, that can be an opportunity for new adventures.

These ventures emerge slowly. Pause and patience need to be embedded along this journey. Vibrant connections for engagement, meaning, worth, and esteem-promoting interactions make stealthy and puzzling events transparent and engender new vigor. Remember: My life matters, it makes sense, and my goals make a difference.


Ninivaggi, F.J. (2020). Learned Mindfulness: Physician Engagement and M.D. Wellness. Cambridge, Mass: Elsevier/Academic Press.