Is Cancel Culture in Your Workplace?

Wikipedia defines cancel culture as “Cancel culture is a phrase contemporary to the late 2010s and early 2020s used to refer to a cultural phenomenon in which some who are deemed to have acted or spoken in an unacceptable manner are ostracized, boycotted, or shunned. This shunning may extend to social or professional circles—whether on social media or in person—with most high-profile incidents involving celebrities. Those subject to this ostracism are said to have been ‘canceled.'”

An article in the University of Central Florida’s magazine, Pegasus, gives insight into the impact of being canceled on society. It drums up visions of whole groups standing for one cause or another or people coming together against a recent injustice. It also digs deeper into the negative and potential groupthink of cancel culture. We’ve watched this play out on our check-ins with the news in recent years.

While the article primarily discusses the implications of cancel culture in social media, its relevance to the business world cannot be ignored.

  • What if this phenomenon is unfolding within your own organization?
  • What if the culture you’ve painstakingly built is under threat of being canceled?
  • Or houses those who passively align with its goal of silencing dissenting voices?

These are questions that demand our attention.


Cancel culture isn’t something we typically associate with the workplace, but it’s more prevalent than we might think. Envy, strife, and disdain for colleagues often manifest in subtle and intentional ways. Leadership may not have time or interest to observe or address this phenomenon. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly common in modern workplaces. And it has the potential to harm your company’s culture if left unchecked. Thus, it is essential to recognize and address canceling ideology in the workplace.

Some employees may engage in a passive-aggressive cancel culture by believing false information and negative assumptions about their coworkers. This behavior is akin to the art of war, where one seeks to take down one’s enemy without using direct force. These individuals may appear to be team players, but in reality, they engage in unhealthy passive behaviors. The intent is to cancel the other employee.

After being brought to your attention, such toxic behaviors should be immediately addressed. These can spread like a slow-growing but definitely terminal cancer throughout a company. Those who engage in psychological abuse at work do not rest until their target is destroyed. The best outcome is when their target is terminated from the company. You could lose valuable skilled staff by looking in the other direction. Such behaviors can have serious consequences and should be dealt with promptly.

What Does Canceling Look Like?

“Canceling” another employee can take many forms, some of which are subtle. For example, a person doing the canceling might intentionally withhold important information. They make themselves unavailable for interaction. These staff could block all forms of communication (without the leadership’s knowledge). Most speak inappropriately about the employee to other staff. They often disagree with that person’s choices or decisions. Cancelers disregard others’ value to the company or show their aggravation when in the same meeting. They’ve already canceled this person in their own mind; they hope others will follow suit.

Sometimes, those doing the canceling are not strong enough emotionally to be in the same room. They simply avoid the person completely. Regardless of the method, the negative effects can spread and infect those around them.

Maybe it’s just a communication misunderstanding. I have talked a lot about communication in business over the years. Good communication is vital, but we don’t know what we don’t know. Here are a few ways to begin addressing this underlying culture cancer in your company:


First of all, take their concerns seriously if your employees report passive-aggressive behavior. Don’t dismiss their concerns as being due to hypersensitivity or an overly emotional reaction. It’s important to know your employees well and keep an eye out for any signs of problematic behavior. When an employee approaches you with a problem, listen to them attentively. Acknowledge their viewpoint and investigate the issue to see if there is any supporting evidence. Take into account Employees’ work performance, length of tenure, loyalty, and other interpersonal relationships with other staff. You need to diagnose the problem and investigate its root cause in order to resolve it. You cannot grow your people if you do not know your people.


Secondly, it can be difficult to address certain issues, and many leaders may choose to ignore them. However, sometimes it’s necessary to take immediate action. Like undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous growth, sometimes it is necessary to relieve that person from their position. Counseling may be helpful in other cases. This can help employees identify their weaknesses and grow their emotional intelligence. It can be an indicator of a lower Emotional Quotient when one staff fixates on getting another canceled. Every person brings their own experiences and perspectives when they come to work. Understanding that some conflicts may be rooted in past experiences can help foster empathy and resolve issues. If a person is willing to grow past canceling others, we should do everything to assist them in that goal.


Third, it is important to openly address a situation and inform all parties involved, either together or separately. And give them time to heal. Be mindful of your company’s culture, and do not expect an immediate change in their interaction with each other. Whenever possible, limit their interaction for a certain period of time. Reintegrate them slowly into working teams with other staff where collaboration is necessary. We can only grow with new knowledge if we have the opportunity to do so. Therefore, it is important to take it slow. But expect the changes identified and expected with everyone earlier in the process. Celebrate the victories and positive changes you observe privately to avoid causing any embarrassment. Do talk to them about what you notice.


And finally, allow time to pass. Time dims memories and feelings. Employees can grow through some of their own biases to better engagement and less fear. Amanda Kootz, a UCF associate professor of sociology, stated in the Pegasus article, “So often we are told, ‘We must act and speak out, or we are part of the problem,’ and therefore we are not necessarily taught or trained that inaction or not speaking out can be a form of social-justice action. At some point, we need to think about ways we can create positive change instead of fueling negative causes.”

It is important to acknowledge the value of truly listening to and observing your staff in all situations. Be open to engaging with them to identify problems. Address the issues appropriately. Allow time for healing in order to create a healthier work environment for everyone. Never underestimate the power of expressing appreciation with phrases such as “I see you,” “I’m proud of you,” and “Thank you.” Your employees won’t.

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