Workplace Culture

Cautionary Tales of Cancel Culture in the Workplace

October 15, 2020

Cancel culture in the workplace can be a confusing concept. Here is what you need to know and what you need to consider before reacting.

Photo of a typewriter with the word CANCEL typed on the paper.

Some people find themselves in the Human Resources hotseat over the course of their working career.  Most times whatever happened was unintendedly offensive to someone, or against company policy.  In today’s social and political climate, however, there is quite a variety of mistakes that can land employees in front of HR, or worse—suddenly fired.  Furthermore, entire companies can lose their credibility due to one misstep.  Although that might seem like the end of the story, this is where the cautionary tales of cancel culture in the workplace actually begin.

The Many Faces of Cancel Culture

Cancel culture can take on many forms, but it typically begins with unresolved issues within the workplace.  Specifically, instead of bringing issues to light immediately and creating an open dialogue for resolution, they are suppressed for an indeterminate length of time.  Once they eventually come to a head, the company either handles situations thoughtfully and with care, or people can be snuffed out.  Now this is where we as a culture should take a hard look at our process for opening the conversation.  Specifically, if everyone who thinks they shouldn’t discuss the topic stays silent, the conversation will be one-sided, at best.  At worst, it will continue to perpetuate negative work environments, and potentially close off important conversations altogether. 

So, let’s talk about what cancel culture is, a couple high-profile examples, and the positives and negatives that come from it.  Hopefully, this will open your eyes to how cancel culture in the workplace is so much more complex that perhaps you’ve considered.  Then, perhaps you will be intentional about responding to sticky situations with more care and consideration.

Cancel Culture:  A Definition

Image of a word cloud with the words CANCEL, ABOLISH, annul, REMOVE, and many others written in black, gray, and red.

According to, “Cancel culture is the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures or companies after doing something offensive or deemed so.”  On paper, this concept may sound honorable, but there are numerous problems can arise from cancelling people in the workplace without due process.

Cancel Culture:  Examples

In order to paint a picture of the complexity of cancel culture, we need to identify some examples of recent acts of cancellation.

An I-Don’t-Know

Let’s begin with a workplace example.  Well-known tire giant Goodyear recently landed in the spotlight for more than just tires.  They became the object of an all-out debate about the acronyms employees could wear on their attire.  Specifically, BLM vs. MAGA. For those who have been buffering themselves from the cacophony that is the media these days, that is Black Lives Matter vs. Make America Great Again. 

The question hanging in the balance was how American values reflect employee attitudes, and consequently how those attitudes affect and reflect upon their employer.  The question is abstract, at best, and yet both sides were equally determined and felt justified in their fight to support their cause.  Basically, could an employee be fired for wearing a MAGA hat to work, when another employee could freely wear a BLM hat?  In this situation, what it came down to is whether a company considers a group political in nature.  Eventually, Goodyear rewrote their company policies, but even that couldn’t fully clarify why they prohibited one acronym and not the other.

A No-No

Next, let’s discuss an example where something in an employee’s personal life led to their eventual demise at work.  Several years ago, a former IAC executive hopped on Twitter to joke that she couldn’t contract AIDS while in Africa because she is white.  Her employer promptly dismissed her from employment, and later issued an apology for her gasp-worthy comments. 

Image of a cartoon face shouting, with a hand from the opposite side palm toward the face, cancelling out the words.
no shouting | By icon4yu, TW | CC by

In this situation, statutory laws dictated whether the employee could rightfully be fired based on inflammatory social media comments.  Some states have laws in place protecting an employee’s right to freely express opinions online.  Keep in mind that what is simply an opinion, joke, or expression to one person can sound like hate speech, racism, harassment, or threats to another. 

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As you can see, these two situations are vastly different.  Nevertheless, they are equally worthy of reflection in order to help us consider future situations we will inevitably encounter.

Cancel Culture and Social Media

Ok, so this is a great segue for the next topic.  We can’t talk about cancel culture without discussing how social media affects it.  Think of it this way:  cancel culture paired with social media is basically a problem on steroids.  Social media is where a molehill becomes a mountain.  Once an issue hits the virtual realm, it is no longer subject to private resolution—it’s out there for the world to judge, critique, and potentially fight for.  Right or wrong, with or without all the facts, workplace problems become everyone’s business.  Nevertheless, the internet is here to stay, and consequently some form of social media will likely remain as well.  With that in mind, be extra cautious about the things you put out there on social media. After publishing, they immediately become subject to interpretation and potentially harsh criticism.

The Good that can Come from Cancel Culture

Now, let’s start with the positive changes that are happening as a result of cancel culture in the workplace.  First, know that there will certainly be situations that warrant swiftly cancelling an employee or withdrawing support from an entity.  However, consider those situations on a case-by-case basis, because it is challenging to make a blanket definition of such situations. 

Cancel Culture Image 3 1
Power + Justice by John Graham | Source

So, when those situations do arise resulting in fair and swift termination, a positive result is that victims have a sense of justice.  The reason this is important is because prompt punishment is a fairly new phenomenon in the workplace.  Historically, employees who rocked the boat or opposed the “wrong person” at work could face a wide spectrum of retaliation, with no protection from their employer.  Many employees chose silence over a fight that had a better chance of ending badly for themselves.

Another positive that can come from cancel culture in the workplace is that people who are not a good fit for certain positions are removed.  Cancel culture spotlights people who have a history of repeatedly making the same mistake, then ensures that the world is conscious of their offenses.  It says, “Buyer beware.” 

The Bad that can Come from Cancel Culture

Now, for the dark side of cancel culture in the workplace.  

Broken Trust

First, cancellation, when implemented too quickly, erodes trust.  Employees start to question, “Can anyone be cancelled?  And for what reasons?  Is cancellation limited to things that happen in the workplace?  What role could my personal life play in my cancellation?”  As you can see, cancel culture can lead to feelings of fear, panic, paranoia, and eventually paralysis. 

Communication Shutdown

Second, once this paralysis sets in, it shuts down channels of communication and necessary conversation surrounding the issue.  Within the silence, it erodes people’s willingness to be honest, creative, or take risks.  In other words, it kills innovation.  Cancel culture eliminates the things needed for a healthy workplace culture—employee engagement, open communication, employee retention.  These things are necessary for growth and innovation.

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Imbalance in Personal Life and Work

Image of a man in a shirt and tie sitting at a laptop computer on a table.

Third, the death of innovation isn’t confined only to the workplace, because cancel culture eventually blurs the line between personal life and work.  It does not take the complexity of the world into consideration.  Cancel culture doesn’t recognize that people often play different characters in the workplace than the people they truly are in their personal lives.  It forces binary thinking, meaning things are simply black or white, good or bad.  While binary thinking is much more simplistic, it is quite unrealistic, and can do far more harm than good.

Legal Implications

Finally, simply cancelling someone in the workplace may be illegal, depending on the situation and the state of employment.  Your company could land in the middle of a lawsuit, if you act too quickly.  Simply claiming “We don’t tolerate XYZ” could in fact violate employees’ civil liberties, so tread carefully by starting your justification in that way. 

Handling Sticky Situations

So, how should your company handle situations that could end in a cancellation?  Well, the only advice I can give is for you to consider pausing

After that, gather as much information about the issue as you possibly can.  Then, make a list of your options. 

  • Consider whether there is a possibility to reconcile between the two parties involved in the conflict. 
  • Know the laws in your state regarding what employees can say on their personal social media. 
  • Know what you as an employer can say on social media. 
  • Be clear and fair in your employee handbook about your policies. 
  • Know that there are no perfect people, and that employees and companies alike will make mistakes. 
  • Learn how to extend grace even when you are pressured to punish, if you feel it is the right thing to do. 
  • Feel confident in swiftly terminating an employee when the situation calls for it.

Finally, accept that however you decide to take action, you will likely face backlash and a myriad of social consequences from multiple camps who don’t agree with your decision.  As always, make sure HR is involved in this process.

Cancel Culture Wrap-Up

In summary, I realize nothing can wrap up cancel culture into a tidy little package.  On the contrary, the situations leading to cancel culture cannot be contained.  They are big, messy, sloppy, busting at the seams, and oozing out of the box.  There are no two situations that are identical, with the same genetic or chemical makeup, and therefore you cannot use the same thinking or tools to handle them.  Thus, you must handle these situations with care.  In other words, be considerate of the situation, and look at it from all angles.  Finally, continue to communicate with employees to keep the dialogue flowing.  Especially during the sensitive times we are in, be careful of letting your reflexes dictate your actions. 

Image of a man standing in the middle of a checkerboard looking confused.
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