Original Research

‘The fact that she just looked at me…’ – Narrations on shame in South African workplaces

Claude-Hélène Mayer, Rian Viviers, Louise Tonelli
SA Journal of Industrial Psychology | Vol 43 | a1385 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajip.v43i0.1385 | © 2017 Claude-Hélène Mayer, Rian Viviers, Louise Tonelli | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 30 May 2016 | Published: 28 February 2017

About the author(s)

Claude-Hélène Mayer, Department of Industrial and Organisational Psychology, University of South Africa, South Africa
Rian Viviers, Department of Industrial and Organisational Psychology, University of South Africa, South Africa
Louise Tonelli, Department of Industrial and Organisational Psychology, University of South Africa, South Africa


Orientation: Shame has been internationally researched in various cultural and societal contexts as well as across cultures in the workplace, schools and institutions of higher education. It is an emotional signal that refers to experienced incongruence of identity goals and the judgement of others.

Research purpose: The purpose of this study was to focus on experiences of shame in the South African (SA) workplace, to provide emic, in-depth insights into the experiences of shame of employees.

Motivation for the study: Shame in the workplace often occurs and might impact negatively on mental health and well-being, capability, freedom and human rights. This article aims at gaining some in-depth understanding of shame experiences in SA workplaces. Building on this understanding the aim is to develop awareness in Industrial and Organisational Psychologists (IOPs), employees and organisations to cope with shame constructively in addition to add to the apparent void in the body of knowledge on shame in SA workplaces.

Research design, approach and method: An interpretative hermeneutical research paradigm, based on Dilthey’s modern hermeneutics was applied. Data were collected through semistructured interviews of 11 employees narrating their experiences from various workplaces, including the military, consulting organisations and higher education institutions. Content analysis was used for data analysis and interpretation.

Main findings: The major themes around which shameful experiences evolved included loss of face, mistreatment by others, low work quality, exclusion, lifestyle and internalised shame on failure in the workplace. Shame is experienced as a disturbing emotion that impacts negatively on the self within the work context. It is also experienced as reducing mental health and well-being at work.

Practical/managerial implications: SA organisations need to be more aware of shame in the workplace, to address the potential negative effects of shame on employees, particularly if they are not prepared to reframe shame into a constructively and positively used emotion. Safe spaces should be made available to talk about shame. Strategies should be applied to deal with shame constructively.

Contribution/value-add: This article expands an in-depth understanding of shame from emic and culture-specific perspectives within SA workplaces. The findings are beneficial to IOPs and organisations to understand what shame is from the perspective of SA employees across cultural groups. The article thereby adds value to theory and practice, offering IOPs a deeper understanding of shame in the work context.


shame; work context; higher education institutions; emic perspectives


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