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The Degradation Ceremony: A Theory of Workplace Bullying

Looking at workplace bullying through a sociological lens.

Key points

  • An individual in a group like a workplace may be abused and attacked for violating the group’s unwritten norms; for example, whistleblowing.
  • The pattern of bullying that follows is meant not just to quiet the victim, but to punish them and ideally force them out.
  • Research on such attacks finds that they can be traumatic for the victim, carrying a high psychological and physical cost.

Meet Glenda.

Glenda was full of anticipation, having just started her new job as an administrator. Her first year was a triumph: She built the foundation for meaningful relationships with colleagues and spent time watching and listening, attempting to get a feel for the culture of her new place of work. In an effort to better meet the needs of those she was hired to help, she opened her office door to meet with stakeholders and constituents.

During those meetings, people shared recurring themes of gossip, bullying, corruption, coverups, and micromanaging that prevented innovation, terrorized employees, and diminished care to those they were charged to serve. Per her job responsibilities, she shared these concerns with her superior, who initially praised her fortitude for reporting the abuses, vowing to look into the alleged issues. The following week, an investigation was indeed launched, but the focus was not on the misbehaviors and unethical conduct of employees. It was on Glenda.

Photo by Dev Asangbam on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Dev Asangbam on Unsplash

Over the coming months, she experienced the high price of breaking the institution’s cultural norms of silence and status-quo thinking, in which top leaders prioritized power and reputation over the ethical care of those they were supposed to help. Glenda’s Degradation Ceremony had begun. Her character was obliterated, her ties to colleagues cut, and ultimately she was pushed out of a job she thrived at and loved.

What Is a Degradation Ceremony?

In 1956, Harold Garfinkel, a sociologist and ethnomethodologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, published a paper entitled "Conditions of a Successful Degradation Ceremony," in which he defined it as “Any communicative work between persons, whereby the public identity of an actor is transformed into something looked on as lower in the local scheme of social types.”

Its success requires three players: the denouncer, the victim, and the witnesses. The denouncer is omnipotent. She presents her words and actions, not as personal opinions but divine commentary representing the community’s beliefs and values. The victim is the target of the abuse, and the witnesses follow the denouncer’s script or risk being targeted next.

The denouncer selects the victim. Victims are chosen because they broke group norms. Within a family, a Degradation Ceremony might be initiated if the “perfect” daughter steps out of her role as the obedient, silent one and decides to voice the truths of her family’s toxicity. In the workplace community, a Degradation Ceremony may be launched when a creative employee offers an innovative solution to an entrenched problem the organization would prefer to keep hidden. To reinforce group norms, such as strict hierarchies and loyalty, the denouncer initiates gossip, manipulation, sabotage, and gaslighting in an effort to scare the victim into compliance.

If the victim continues to operate outside the group’s strict code of conduct, the denouncer will redefine the situation, placing the victim in the role of the perpetrator and therefore making it necessary for her to be punished.

The denouncer will instruct the witnesses, or members of the community, to participate in the stripping of the victim’s dignity and the obliteration of her reputation under the pretense that she is innately flawed, insisting her kindness and years of stellar performance were merely a farce.

In her role, the denouncer is the judge, jury, and prosecutor and this case has only one acceptable outcome: complete and total exile, mimicking the pack behavior of animals in the wild. To elicit full witness buy-in, the denouncer must disintegrate all admiration, goodwill, and friendships associated with the victim on the pretense that the victim is innately and fully bad. This is a black-and-white thinking process that squeezes out all room for questions and curiosities.

It is traumatizing to be ceremonially stripped of one’s humanity, and it is this traumatization that often leads victims of the psychological attack to experience significant and long-term physical and mental health consequences, the most serious being suicide.

How Degradation Ceremonies Explain Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying, at its core, is the degradation of a person with less power, per position or social capital, by a person with more power, with the ultimate goals of public humiliation, character assassination, reputational damage, and exile. As a professor and qualitative researcher, I have collected and coded the stories of 167 victims of workplace bullying across 8 countries, 31 states, and 24 employment sectors. The opening vignette of Glenda’s experience may sound extreme, but it is actually quite common across these stories.

A working theory that has emerged from the data is that workplace bullying, in its purest form, is actually a public and extended Degradation Ceremony in which an innovative, top producer or whistleblower is driven out of her workplace community for breaking cultural norms, such as refusing to maintain the status quo or participate in the covering up of wrongdoings. The victim’s exile will not satisfy the perpetrator. For the Degradation Ceremony to conclude, the victim must also be stripped of her dignity and self-worth through large-scale, targeted, and prolonged bullying.

Instances of large-scale abuse, in which high numbers of organizational players join in on the attack, do not happen everywhere. The culture must be ripe for terror. As Brown (2018) asserts, “... when the culture of a corporation, nonprofit, university, government, church, sports program, school, or family mandates that it is more important to protect the reputation of that system and those in power than to protect the basic human dignity of individuals or communities, you can be certain of the following problems: Shame is systemic. Complicity is part of the culture. Money and power trump ethics. Accountability is dead. Control and fear are management tools. And there’s a trail of devastation and pain."

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Brown, B. (2018). Dare to lead: Brave work. Tough conversations. Whole hearts. New York: Random House.

Garfinkel, H. (1956). Conditions of successful degradation ceremonies. American Journal of Sociology, 61(5), 420–424.

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