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Workplace Bullying: A Three-Part Degradation Ceremony

Creativity, productivity, and high ethical standards may make you a target.

Photo by Omid Armin on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Omid Armin on Unsplash

The cycle of workplace bullying is traumatic, predictable, and quite reminiscent of what sociologist and ethnomethodologist, Harold Garfinkel, described in 1956 as a "Degradation Ceremony," in which the ringleader, in cooperation with the larger community, systematically and publicly strips the target of her dignity and humanity.

The ceremony requires three categories of actors. There is the denouncer or ringleader, who speaks omnipotently for the organization; the witnesses, who see, participate, and propel the abuse; and the victim, whose personhood and status is denigrated. The Ceremony concludes when the victim’s character is assassinated, her reputation is dismantled, and she is fully exiled from the community she once called home. (For a more thorough explanation, please read my previous post entitled "The Degradation Ceremony: A Theory of Workplace Bullying.")

In workplace bullying, the victim of the Degradation Ceremony is not targeted because she has done something wrong, but because the denouncer has declared her stigmatized. Goffman (1963), the preeminent Canadian sociologist, defines stigma as an attributed characteristic that diminishes a person’s well-being and propels social inequality by enforcing a strict hierarchy in which the victim is relegated to the bottom rung of society. In the nonsensical world of workplace abuse, victims of workplace bullying are often stigmatized for being creative, hard-working, and ethical, all characteristics innovative and pro-social organizations seek out in exemplary job candidates.

For victims of psychological terrorism on the job, the Degradation Ceremony unfolds over three stages. In the first stage, the denouncer identifies and targets the victim, attempting to bring her back into compliance; in the second stage, the denouncer and witnesses shame the victim using tactics of gossip, manipulation, and sabotage; and in the final stage, the victim’s accomplishments and life narratives are rewritten by the denouncer, who reframes the victim as an innately evil-doer who must be destroyed and then shunned.

Let’s explore each stage in detail.

Stage One of the Degradation Ceremony

Stage one begins with a triggering event, which tends to fall into one of three categories: An employee’s high productivity recalibrates the status quo; an innovative worker’s divergent thinking challenges the company’s traditional approaches to products, clients, students, and ideas; or an ethical employee blows the whistle on harmful practices transpiring at work. Sometimes it is a combination of the three.

Per this triggering event, the denouncer decides that the victim has gone “beyond the pale,” a term derived from the Latin word Palus, meaning stake. The notion arose during the 14th century Norman Invasion when imposing stakes or pales were placed strategically around the king’s territory to mark the perimeter and serve as a barrier to outsiders and animals attempting to invade. In the modern-day, if you step “beyond the pale,” you are breaking with a community’s cultural norms, and therefore no longer afforded protection or communion, thus leaving you vulnerable and alone.

Stage Two of the Degradation Ceremony

In stage two, the denouncer gives a battle cry to rally colleagues and instruct them to initiate the weapons of gossip, manipulation, and sabotage in an effort to shame the victim into compliance with group norms and values. Organizations that use Degradation Ceremonies as tools of control tend to enforce steep hierarchies, demand loyalty, reject innovation, discourage questions and curiosities, and value outward appearances over ethical actions, even when immoral or illegal behavior is uncovered.

Stage Three of the Degradation Ceremony

At this stage, the purpose of the Degradation Ceremony moves from an effort to enforce compliance to active attempts at obliteration, in which the victim is stripped of her dignity through character assassination. To accomplish this goal, full community action and support are required.

To entice colleagues and leadership to participate, the denouncer asserts righteous indignation over the victim’s actions, whether it is recalibrating the status quo or whistleblowing, and declares her deeds are indicative of a broken character, whose innate flaws pose an existential threat to the well-being of the entire organization, leaving no alternative except complete exile. This is ironic because research indicates the victim is likely a compassionate, hard-working, visionary who is exactly what the organization needs to turn the corner and begin to do good work.

By hijacking and rewriting the script of an event, and crafting a plotline of the victim as innately bad, the denouncer creates a circumstance where colleagues recognize that if they are to maintain their “good person” status, they have no choice but to participate in the Degradation Ceremony, for if they abstain, they will be aligning with the darkness and thus opening themselves up to being targeted next. As a result, most colleagues and leadership will stand in solidarity with the denouncer, helping to grind the victim’s dignity and self-worth down into dust particles that are righteously swept out the door as they give each other a high five for completing a task that simply had to be done.

Because the goal of the Degradation Ceremony is complete character obliteration built on the belief of inherent and all-encompassing unworthiness, the victim is hollowed out, no longer recognizable to herself. Each time she attempts to tell her story while surveying the damage, she is knocked to her knees again.

At this point, the vicious and unwarranted attacks may cause symptoms such as migraines, heart palpitations, and high blood pressure that impede her ability to physically function. In tandem with her bodily decline, anxiety and depression may take residency in the corner chair, making themselves constant companions on this unexpected journey off the cliff of her career. The realization that her able body and innovative mind are now evaporating in the hallways of the organization she once called home creates a whirlwind of shaming, drowning her spirit, and extinguishing her hope, as the mob goes out for drinks to celebrate her demise.

The Degradation Ceremony is now complete.

The Aftermath

For the victim, the Degradation Ceremony permeates all aspects of her life as she begins the reckoning that she trusted the wrong people, counted on the wrong organization, and that her expectations of goodness and fair play don’t apply to her current state of affairs. Her voice is jailed, her reputation imploded, and she is left exiled and unemployed.

In this darkness, she has two choices.

Choice one, she sheds her dignity, truths, and honor and attempts to crawl back to the community and beg for re-admission. Likely the door will remain locked, but if they reissue her key, they are in fact welcoming a person back that is nothing like the person the universe wants her to be. Over time, working with an unscrupulous organization that does not value her will be decimating.

Choice two, she acknowledges the disconnect between who she knows herself to be and the person portrayed in the false narrative written by her denouncer in an effort to preserve the toxic culture. Within choice two, the anecdote to recovery is shame resilience, which gently moves her from a state of self-loathing to self-compassion, reclaiming the heritage and stories of her goodness and accomplishments. To do this work, some victims find it empowering to hold their own Ceremony, one grounded in self-love.

Self-Love: Enacting a New Ceremony

Along this chosen path of self-love and redemption, the victim may benefit from enacting her own ceremony, one proposed by the neuropsychologist, Dr. Mario Martinez, which includes healing steps grounded in self-compassion and not dependent on her denouncer nor organization admitting wrongdoing, which is important, for apologies and acknowledgments are seldom forthcoming.

The ceremony has three steps.

First, she must ask herself who and what she must spiritually disconnect from in order to have the freedom to find a new, healthy, innovative, inclusive, and welcoming community.

Second, she writes a letter of goodbye to mark the disconnection she has chosen. This act empowers her to hear her voice and reclaim her dignity. The letter may sound something like this:

Dear Dr. Perrie,

Today I disconnected from you and this organization. I have decided to choose myself over conforming to cultural norms that are not in keeping with my values and beliefs. You no longer have control over me. I no longer have an obligation to you. I wish you well. This ceremony serves as our official disconnection.

My Authentic Voice

Third, she lights a candle, reads the letter aloud to herself, and then holds it over the flame as it burns into oblivion.

She is now free.

Copyright (2020). Dorothy Courtney Suskind, Ph.D.


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

Goffman, Erving. 1963. Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Jennings, K. (2016, October 10). The origin of the phrase 'beyond the Pale.’ Retrieved March 24, 2021, from

Martinez, M. (2016). The mind-body code: How to change the beliefs that limit your health, longevity, and success. Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True.

Martinez, M. (2019). Mind body-self: How longevity is culturally learned and the cause of heath are inherited. Carlsbad, California: Hay House Inc.

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