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Shame: Does it fit in the workplace?


Of all the tools a leader can choose from to effectively manage people, shame isn’t the first one that comes to mind.

But shame in the workplace does exist.

It can be innate or external, and the results can be surprising.

What is shame?

Shame is a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.

It can be brought on as an immediate internal reaction when someone realizes they just said or did something regrettable. Generally, most people want to avoid the strong, negative feeling of humiliation, so in that respect, shame acts as a kind of self-regulating or self-correcting reaction.

It comes from within and is based on our upbringing and social consciousness. We say something unfortunate; we regret it and feel ashamed and strive not to engage in that behavior again.

Good, right?

A little farther down in the definition, however, the dictionary says shame is something that can be used to reprove someone for something of which they should be ashamed: Shame on you for lying on your resume (imagine finger-wagging).

And that’s where things get sticky.

How shame in the workplace affects us

As a business leader, you might expect that people have a healthy internal shame meter. It can make your job easier to not need to manage interpersonal communications and allow employees to self-manage this area. Also, when you do need to address a situation where someone inadvertently says or does something that may be taken as discriminatory or harassing, those with a healthy shame meter can recognize the situation, feel regret, make amends and work to ensure the situation never again occurs. This can apply in most performance-related areas as well.

Those without a shame meter, healthy or otherwise, can make your work life a nightmare.

You may find yourself continually educating and following up with an individual who doesn’t recognize the impact of their actions on their fellow employees or the business as a whole. This person may also cause liability for your company, in additional to being a drag on morale.

How shame in the workplace can present itself

It’s unfortunate, but there are instances when shame in the workplace takes on a different meaning of the word and people try to manage or coerce employees or co-workers into doing something through reproval.

Leading by shaming can take many forms including:

  • Bullying
  • Harassment
  • Humiliation

There are many symptoms including:

  • Blaming
  • Favoritism
  • Gossiping
  • Name-calling

And they can occur in any size business.

Even the smallest companies can experience the same problems as enterprise-size entities when it comes to shame. In any case, there are certain strong personalities who feel like shaming or humiliating their employees is the way to motivate them.  This might make an entertaining movie or reality TV, but it doesn’t work in real life.

It may be natural for those personalities to fall into shaming when they’re overwhelmed – their patience can run out, and it’s easy to lash out. They get angry with employees who just can’t get it and wind up shaming them in front of other employees or customers.

Can that tack work?


But how long will the employee stay around for such abuse?

Ramifications of a shaming culture

The immediate impact of shaming can be seen in how those being shamed work and collaborate.

Creativity and innovation disappear

While shaming might get an employee on track and producing, the level of production might stagnate. Here’s how that might play out:

  • The shamed employee will only do what was ordered, or less.
  • There will be no innovation or creation coming from that employee for fear of doing something different that won’t be accepted or appreciated by the leader.
  • Creative and innovative endeavors tend to rock the boat in the beginning, and shamed employees don’t want to rock the boat.

Productivity wanes

It’s hard for employees who work in fear of being shamed to muster up the motivation to produce. They’ll do their work by rote and produce just enough to fly under their leader’s radar and then run home when the clock ticks 5. Or, the fear of making an error may be so great that they delay and little gets done.

Absenteeism increases

Facing daily shame and humiliation is exhausting, often leading employees to call in absent, arrive late or leave early. Employees who work under this kind of pressure can only take so much, before they have to take time away to recover (or look for another job).

Resentment festers

Shamed employees are going to resent their employer for the treatment they receive. Co-workers of shamed employees are going to resent having to continually cover the frequently absent employee’s work, which can lead to additional morale problems. Co-workers may resent the employee who frequently calls out and the leader whose behavior created the problem.

Employees disengage

Shamed workers may be standoffish with their peers; they’ve been humiliated and want to hide. Teams no longer collaborate well with one another; they look out for and cover themselves to avoid interaction with their shamer.

Sales stagnate or decrease

Disengaged workers not only work with each other at arm’s length, they may interact with customers the same way. Going outside the given parameters of their responsibilities could put them in the crosshairs of their shamer, leading the employee to restrict or avoid communication with customers or, at minimum, be wary of what they say and how they say it.

Turnover rises

Shaming is a form of abuse, and people have their limits.


  • People who lead by shaming are poor managers, and poor managers have higher turnover and turnover is expensive.
  • As a company churns employees, its recruiting costs soar.
  • Training becomes never-ending and no time is left for development.

Lawsuits loom

Leaders who lead by shaming create an environment that is rife with hostility. Mockery, insults, put-downs and name-calling are all symptoms of a toxic culture, and in some cases the behavior may rise to that of a hostile work environment.

If the employee is subject to a hostile work environment based upon a protected classification under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (sex, race, color, religion, etc.) this could result in a charge from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a lawsuit.

All of this has a negative effect on a business’s bottom line and even its reputation. In recent times, companies have been subject to public shaming for irresponsible or unsavory business practices. Unlike individual people, businesses don’t have feelings and consumers will take their business elsewhere if they don’t like what they see.

Healing the culture

Whether you have a shamer – or you are the shamer – the prescription for healing your culture  is to:

  1. Be aware and take note of the signs of shaming.
  2. Educate yourself and your employees on what is acceptable behavior and how to positively motivate people.
  3. Immediately discipline those who practice shaming, humiliation or bullying and track their improvement.
  4. Terminate the problem employee who cannot or will not correct their behavior as tracked through progressive discipline.

Clearly there is no room for shame in the workplace.

Successful leaders model effective behaviors and use constructive discipline to draw out expected performance from their employees.

Want to learn more about how to effectively manage your people? Download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.