Cancel culture in the workplace & what to do if you’ve fallen victim

Viesturs Abelis 15.08.2022
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cancel culture in the workplace

Cancel culture has made its way into the workplace. 

For those unfamiliar with the term, canceling someone typically consists of a group publicly shaming an individual, followed by the refusal to engage with that person in any capacity. Or, in layman’s terms, collectively not talking or working with someone because they’ve done or said something unacceptable.

There can be several reasons for it: some unwelcome behavior or information coming to light, a clash in social or political views, or simply a personal disagreement that gets out of hand. 

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Today, cancel culture is part of our daily lives and nobody’s immune. 

On one hand, canceling someone is an effective way to condemn bad deeds. It’s a form of social justice with a group taking charge in deeming something, e.g. sexual misconduct, beyond reprehensible and punishing the wrongdoer by shunning them from their community. Particularly when existing institutions and mechanisms fail to do so. 

On the other hand, it’s a very dangerous tool that can be easily misused, especially in a corporate environment. Hurtful office rumors can easily balloon into something more sinister, personal grudges can be weaponized, and differences in opinion can lead to mobbing. Oftentimes – unfairly. 

Cancel culture in the workplace

Cancel culture at work isn’t normal. There should always be mechanisms in place to resolve conflicts. When such procedures are lacking or insufficient, people tend to take matters into their own hands leading to a toxic and confrontational work environment. 

This negatively impacts office dynamics and puts a great deal of stress on employees. The target of the canceling in particular, as they’re made brutally aware that they’re not welcome. In turn, fruitful work and collaboration become virtually impossible for the affected individual and they often have no other alternative than to leave their company. 

girl cancel culture at work

Sometimes, this can bring about a positive overall result. One bad apple can spoil the bunch and teams would rather get rid of the person so they don’t have to perform in an environment with lingering hostility (assuming accusations are justified). In certain scenarios, canceling an individual may seem like the only option when that person, for example, is the manager who rejects and blocks different attempts at conflict resolution. 

Other times, and perhaps more commonly, cancel culture at work surfaces in the context of power plays or personal grudges. Making accusations toward a colleague because you don’t like them and then turning the rest of the team against them is a common way to solidify your own status and position in the organization. 

This can have long lasting effects on the target, particularly when the accusations are exaggerated or unfair. The target finds themselves alone in a hostile environment through little-to-no fault of their own and this can dramatically affect their mental health and professional performance. Moreover, the broader team and company is likely to only hear one side of the story, which makes it difficult to clear the air unless the instigator publicly apologizes or the situation is resolved through established channels. 

man canceled in the workplace

What to do if you’ve fallen victim

Once things are in motion, it’s difficult to reverse course. If you’ve fallen victim to a canceling, it doesn’t really matter if you’re at fault, or if it’s an unfair accusation that got way out of hand. In either case, the result will be the same – people will distance themselves from you and it will become difficult to go about your business like before. 

Other than toughing it out, which is hardly a healthy approach, a victim of a cancellation has three practical options: to try to clear the air, to talk with management, or to call it quits and look for another job. 

1. Try to clear the air

Being canceled is like being the subject of a rumor that has gotten way out of control. Oftentimes, many of the colleagues who now refuse to work with you have only heard one small part of one side of the story. Accordingly, if you’ve been treated unfairly, then the best route to take is to get your perspective out there. 

2 men talking in workplace

An email, a Slack message, or just talking with people when you have the opportunity – make sure you clearly get across the points you feel are important. Don’t hesitate to explain why you acted a certain way, and, if there’s any fault on your end, to apologize. 

2. Talk with management

As mentioned previously, there should always be company procedures in place to resolve conflict. Be it a HR person, a manager, or some digital reporting system, make use of the tools at your disposal to ameliorate the situation. Discuss the situation and work together to craft the best path forward. 

A cancel culture in the workplace isn’t healthy for anyone and management should always be interested in not only resolving issues, but also stomping out any embers. In cases where it’s the managers perpetrating or participating in the canceling, then, when possible, it should be taken up with people further up the chain of command before your direct superiors let you go due to personal reasons. 

3. Consider looking for another job

It’s the extreme option, but if the situation has gotten extremely toxic and you can neither clear the air, nor escalate things with higher ups, then it might make sense to jump ship. If your work environment is a collaborative one, then it doesn’t make sense to try to put your head down and push through it, as your work performance will suffer alongside your mental health.

Before leaving, try to end the working relationship on good terms with at least one person to make sure you can get a reference for the future. And when interviewing for a new position, do not hesitate to ask about what conflict resolution looks like at the new company and if they have problems with cancel culture at work.

Parting remarks

Cancel culture in the workplace is a bad sign. Unless it’s addressed quickly and effectively, it risks spiraling out of control, hurting not just the victim, but the company’s bottom-line, too. They’ll get a bad rep, especially if the disgruntled employee decides to go public with what has happened to them. 

But, if you’re the victim, don’t take it lightly. Being socially ostracized can have long-lasting negative effects, doubly so if you believe you’re completely innocent. Don’t hesitate to reach out to some mental health professionals or seek out support groups for victims of canceling. 

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