Management & Leadership

Can humiliation in the workplace improve employee performance?

person working on laptop

Image by ImageFlow / Shutterstock, Inc

I’ve done my time in the call centre trenches before. So I wasn’t too surprised to learn that a claims centre in Manchester recently made the news for dropping a dead squid onto the faces of performers, while colleagues cheered and jeered in sadistic delight.

Sure, it made me laugh. But it also got me thinking. Does humiliation in the workplace ever actually help us fix mistakes or improve employee performance? And if not, then why is it still such a common practice in companies of every shape and size – not just call centres, and rarely with squids.

Today, we’re going to be exploring questions such as:

 * Is it ever OK to humiliate employees?

 * Does it actually help to improve performance or correct mistakes?

 * What are the psychological implications of humiliation in the workplace?

Let’s start with the squid – a form of humiliation that was passed off as “fun”

The squid story is a great place to start because it’s a great example of how humiliation in the workplace can easily be passed off as fun. In this particular story, the Manchester-based call centre had an ongoing ‘game’, where the winning sales team was allowed to select a forfeit for the losing sales team. In this instance, they chose a dead squid to the face.

But while the call centre manager insisted that no employee was forced to take part – and while I’m sure that many employees were fine having a one-to-one with a squid – we all know the power of peer pressure. Sometimes, it is easier to give consent, than to explain you're true feelings and look “weak” in front of your colleagues. So is consent really a good enough indicator that employees are going to be OK with something?

In some reports, the call centre manager tries to justify ‘Squidgate’ by explaining that he’d seen other call centres do it. What, so that makes it OK? If having a dead squid shoved into your face is normal practice in a call centre, then there’s no wonder employee turnover is costing UK call centres an average of £200,000+ each per year!

Too many managers think it’s OK to humiliate their employees for making mistakes

Unfortunately, a humiliation in the workplace seems to be accepted as an OK way to improve employee performance or to prevent errors from recurring. Take Maria, for example. She works as a social media marketer and graphic designer. And while she is obviously very talented – she has struggled with constant humiliation and verbal abuse from her boss.

“On several occasions, he has ridiculed me for spelling a word wrong, or missing a comma” she explains. “He’ll say things like ‘it’s like you don’t know how to spell’, or ‘I can’t believe you don’t know how to use commas’.”

Now, as a writer, I’m aware that I make typos – just check a couple of posts from this blog, and I’m sure you’ll find a few. But if my boss made me feel like my typos were personal failures – regardless of whether it was in public or in private – well, I doubt I’d stick around for the after-party.

“It’s embarrassing to be told that I can’t do my job right” agrees Maria. “But I’ve finally found a way to deal with it – I’m leaving next week, to carve my own future as a freelancer!”

Humiliation leads to shame – which employees will avoid at all costs

There’s a reason why shaming your employees is a great way to boost attrition.

“From a therapy perspective, humiliation is highly linked to feeling shame,” says psychologist Naomi Harvey, of Brighter Day Hypnotherapy. “This is a dangerous emotion. It is one of the most uncomfortable emotions we deal with, and we will avoid it at all costs.”

If we are programmed to avoid shame and humiliation at all costs, then it’s no wonder call centre turnover is so high – especially if things like squid-dropping come as part and parcel of the job. But even if staff stick to their role, there are still problems with this approach.

“Whilst humiliation may indeed drive a workforce to avoid being shamed, it is likely to increase stress and anxiety. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), in 2014/15, 440,000 people in the UK reported work-related stress at a level they believed was making them ill. That’s 40% of all work-related illnesses!”

Humiliation can sometimes produce positive results

Let’s dial it back a minute. So far, we’ve looked at a couple of stories that demonstrate the potentially negative impact of humiliation in the workplace. We’ve also glimpsed at the psychology behind humiliation. But could there ever be a situation where it yields positive results? I asked Sophie Coulthard, from The Judgement Index – a tool used for identifying value-based behaviours in employees, and for highlighting potential barriers to performance, including stress, burnout, poor self-regard and low self-esteem.

“Motivation is an emotion that drives action,” she says. “When we experience humiliation, we will then choose to move in a direction – which could be improved performance but could just as easily be resistance or rebellion. It depends largely on our individual ability to cope with the pressure and stress of the humiliation.”

So can it promote good performance? Possibly – but the results might not be quite what we hope for.

“Humiliation often has an impact on performance in the same way as a financial incentive” she continues. “While it may push a person to hit a target, its effects are likely to be temporary at best.”

And while my own recent research confirms that the impact of financial reward is often short-lived, Sophie is quick to add that humiliation can also include a long list of damaging side effects – including eventual burnout, if people are unable to cope with the high-pressure environment.

When you shame employees… it’s sink or swim

So yes, humiliation is a motivator. And it can push an employee to perform better – or, perhaps, to avoid making a particular mistake again. But do you really want to run a reign of terror? And besides, it’s a gamble – because employees will either sink or swim.

 * Employees will avoid future humiliation at all costs

 * It may motivate them to overcome their issues and improve their performance

 * Or they may simply avoid duties, or outright quit their job

And if you’re thinking that this is a risk you’re happy taking? Think again.

Training employees through humiliation means you’re training them for somebody else

Whether employees sink or swim, there’s very little for you to gain in the long term. You see, if they sink, you lose. And if they swim? Well, all you’ve done is force them to improve, while ensuring your name remains a bad taste in their mouth.

Eventually, with enough pushing, they’ll take their skills elsewhere. Meaning all of those challenges you’ve “helped” them overcome, now become strengths for their next venture – most likely, a competitor.

What else can you possibly expect when you make employees feel small and undermine their self-confidence?

The man who overcame humiliation to build a $76million fortune

In 1873, a young man was struggling to find work. After a long time searching, young Frank eventually haggled his way into a retail apprenticeship with a small dry goods store in New York – by offering to work for free for three months. But oh, how his boss loved to devalue his contributions!

“Useless” Frank’s boss would often call him. And when asking about how things worked in the shop – such as how much to charge customers, or where to find items – Frank would often be met with short, impatient responses that did little more than embarrass the poor lad. Eventually, Frank was relegated to the backroom – because his boss was too ashamed to place him in front of customers, yet too lazy to properly train him.

But Frank battled through the constant humiliation and used the harsh criticism to learn everything he needed to know about retail. And in 1878, Frank Woolworth left his post and started a venture of his own – Woolworths. And for over a century, his brand dominated huge chunks of the international high street, netting Frank a cool $ 76 million fortune.

There are better ways to fix mistakes and improve employee performance

So, if humiliation does little more than breed anger, and drive your employees away, then how should we be helping our people to improve their performance, and learn from their mistakes? Again, Coulthard from The Judgement Index has some sound advice.

“The best way to get true, long-term sustainable results, is to drive employees through their deep intrinsic values” she explains. “If you can crack what truly motivates them – whether that is success for their own pride, or the ability to provide for their family – then you will be able to move them far further than short-term humiliation ever can.”

And in my opinion? It’s about treating people with respect. Remember that they are people. Remember that they have feelings – just like you. But remember also that their feelings may be different to your own – and just because you might cope with something if the tables were turned, it doesn’t mean they will!

Performance should be seen as something to be nurtured, and mistakes should be seen as valuable lessons. After all, organisations thrive when they operate in a culture where mistakes are allowed to happen.

The impact of humiliation in six easy steps

Let’s review the key lessons we’ve just learned about the impact of humiliation in the workplace, as a tool for driving performance or fixing mistakes.

 * Humiliation is linked to high turnover and poor employee health

 * Humiliation causes shame, which is an emotion that most people desperately want to avoid

 * This means they will either overcome their issues or collapse under the pressure

 * The positive results caused by humiliation are usually temporary

 * You may even be training a person to be more successful for somebody else

 * To build a high-performing workforce that is stable and successful, treat employees with respect

I think that covers humiliation from most angles. And I think we can agree that it’s a bad thing. Maybe I’m wrong?