RSS Feed

Comfort for Shunned People


August 7, 2014 by Val Walker

path marblehead winterShunning: Another Kind of Bullying

As popular as the topic of bullying has been over the past few years, I believe shunning, and other forms of mobbing, are ostracizing behaviors that have been overlooked and underexplored. Shunning is typically a more subtle form of bullying that often passes under the radar at workplaces.

Why get caught bullying when all you need to do is roll your eyes? You don’t look like you’re harassing someone when you faintly indicate your dislike with short, exasperated breaths at staff meetings after your target has ventured to speak. Or just ignore or dismiss your target with a sarcastic shrug and false smile. Niceness can have a bite, and nice people in groups can turn into monsters when they are afraid or threatened. No one needs to act like a bully to get the job done. Unpopular or unliked people with excellent performance evaluations can even get fired. Shunning has developed into a sophisticated art, and fits many workplace playbooks to throw someone under the bus, or further, push someone out.

Though years ago we rarely found guidance for protecting ourselves and healing from these cruel practices, shunning at the workplace, and other behaviors known as mobbing (group bullying against an individual), is a topic increasingly being discussed over the past three years. One particular author, Janice Harper, Ph.D., a cultural anthropologist specializing in conflict and organizational cultures, has become inspirational for me and my previously shunned colleagues. Her articles appear in Huffington Post and Psychology Today, and she has a new book out, Mobbed! A Survival Guide to Adult Bullying and Mobbing.

Janice Harper survived years of shunning as a professor, and writes compelling stories about how she was targeted and pushed out of her job. She eventually found a lawyer, and after years of research and hard work, she managed to stand up to the sly, under-the-radar bullying practices of the university.

I’ve recently moved to the Boston area, going to meet-ups and networking events, and often hear stories of ostracizing behaviors at the workplace. It strikes me how hungry people are for healing from these common, pervasive forms of mistreatment. It seems to happen everywhere to most of us. Many of us have survived previous experiences that still haunt us, still sting us, not from being outright bullied or harassed per se, but having been damaged by tiny digs and gestures that passed under the radar as (sort of) acceptable workplace behaviors. In a thousand little cuts it all adds up, and we still carry the scars.

I believe it is important to learn about this very common workplace problem of shunning. Reading Janice Harper’s personal experiences as well as her research has validated what has been painfully true for me, and helped me heal from previous workplace situations. Many of my colleagues have joined in healing conversations with me about identifying shunning, protecting ourselves from it, creating strategies to deal with it, or moving on to other jobs if possible. We comfort each other by examining what happened to us, and finding ways to manage our current situations, even though we accept that these behaviors, unfortunately, are so common that we cannot ever completely escape them.

But nothing is more comforting for bullied, ostracized, or shunned people than sharing our stories, and stating out loud what is secretly and cunningly going on “underground” on the job. We can’t ignore it, or tune it out, just because it should not be happening. We are more empowered when we name it and wisely face it, with the support of others who understand.





  1. Sheridan Nichols says:

    I’m being shunned by my ex husband. It’s gone on for 9 years. He has now gotten our sons to shun me. It’s so painful and there’s seems to be nothing I can do.

    • Val Walker says:

      Hi Sheridan, I hope you have friends or co-workers who don’t shun you, who show they appreciate you. It must feel lonely and frustrating. Being divorced myself, I know the feeling of being shunned by an ex-husband and by his family as well. But when it comes to the children, a whole other story. I’m sure by now you have asked your sons to spend some time with you, so you can just talk a while. You also probably know by now that telling them you think your ex has “made” them shun you is not a good idea. If I were in your shoes,(I don’t want to be presumptuous), I would just offer to spend time with them doing the things they enjoy doing (eating, sports, …. shopping or whatever). I hope that little by little over time they come around. It’s good if they can see that, no matter what they do, you are able to enjoy your own life with others who do appreciate you.

  2. Diane K Larsen says:

    I am being shunned at work. I work in an area of hospital care that requires meticulous attention to detail. Because I do not want to affect patient care or cause a misdiagnosis myself, I take responsibility if I make a mistake. Because I pay very close attention to labels and names and patient identifiers and validity of patient testing, I do not usually make many mistakes.

    It is my fault I am being shunned because I assume that everyone should want to do quality work. So when I pointed out errors which could have affected patient care (one did significantly) to the person/s who make the mistake, I have been yelled at, eyes rolling, had things said about me which are untrue to co-workers in other departments. Fortunately for me, the co-workers from other departments say they don’t believe these things and are generally quite supportive. Recently, I was told by someone from another department that they heard I was moving and they wanted to know when, because they had someone who was interested in moving into my apartment.
    I stopped letting people know when they make mistakes and simply fix them now, but the angry gestures, the silences, and the accusations persist. My boss has told me he sees this, but does not know what to about it. He wants me to let him know about mistakes, but he really doesn’t pay attention and I get little puffs of exasperation from him too. I guess he doesn’t really want to know about them, so that will stop too.
    I am thinking it is time to cut bait, but I don’t want this experience to be repeated somewhere else. I think I should probably read your book. Thanks for listening. I probably shouldn’t have complained to you. Better out than in, I suppose.

    • Val Walker says:

      I am so sorry to hear you are going through this shunning at your workplace. At the beginning of your post, you said “it is my fault I am being shunned…” I would like to share my own view: I do not believe you are at fault. You have the right to speak out, and certainly others who disagree with your view have a right to speak out–not to shun you, but instead to clearly communicate their issues with you. People who lack communication skills or compassion often shun others. If people give us feedback (a supervisor or coworker), I hope we can listen well, and let them know how much we appreciate that they care enough to speak up, and to speak openly with us. I would like to post more on this topic with you soon. I’ll be back with more thoughts. In the meantime, I hope you are feeling better.


  3. Susan says:

    Do you find this happens more in Boston than you ever realized it happening elsewhere? Because I do.

    • Val Walker says:

      Hi Susan,

      First of all I apologize for not responding to you for so long. There are a bunch of reasons for that, yet still I feel bad for neglecting your question. Living in Boston has its challenges as I find Bostonians are very outspoken, quick-witted, sometimes sarcastic, and often funny. This can be a good thing in some ways, and I appreciate the “honest feedback” yet it can be harsh. But I have something interesting to tell you about being a native of a southern state, Virginia: I grew up in quite the opposite culture, very different than Boston, where people were less abrupt, more friendly and welcoming. However, please know that this lovely outward behavior was mostly superficial. Indeed, people who had been quite friendly to me could talk behind my back and gossip like you’ve never seen. I was very hurt when I realized how this friendly exterior was often fake. I was shunned by being deceived by southerners and this hurt a lot. Instead, living in Boston where people don’t appear as friendly, I feel that I know where I stand more with Bostonians. I appreciate the directness. So all in all what I can offer is this: This shunning stuff happens everywhere, and it’s more obvious in Boston, but I’d rather be in the Northeast than in the Southeast.

      Susan, that is my simple take on the Boston thing. Fortunately I’ve made a few good friends here from Mass, and they have taught me how to deal with the Boston shunning stuff. But frankly, a good sense of humor has really helped me too.

      Best of luck to you, Susan.

      Where are you from by the way?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *