“If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
“Mind your speech a little, lest you should mar your fortunes.”
Question: What the are workplace consequences of speech?
The idea for this entry all started in December 2013. Phil Roberston, star of Duck Dynasty[i] (popular reality TV show) agreed to an interview with GQ magazine. Mr. Robertson made comments about both homosexuality and race relations in the American South that were by many viewed as controversial or offensive. The A&E Network, which airs the show, suspended Robertson from his job (coverage here). This lead to a public discussion on free speech, and the dynamism surrounding rights of employees to voice their opinions in and out of the work context. If you were engaged in social media outlets that day, you may have been seeing a LOT of discussion.
So began the questions… I began thinking broadly about free speech and workplace consequences. Why might people speak up on-the-job, at work? Why might they remain silent? When does speech which occurs off-the-job end up with consequences back at work? First, I’ll discuss voice theory, addressing the importance of speaking up in the workplace. Second, I’ll touch on implicit voice theories, which consider reasons why an employee may stay silent on work-related matters. Third, I’ll take aim at organizations’ reactions to employee speech acts that occur outside the workplace. Ambitious agenda again. Let’s think together!*
When and how does employee speech matter in the workplace… in theory?
It is important to note that there are many ways to view speech and workplace consequences. Some speech is directly work-related. Employees desire, but are constrained in, speaking up on work related matters. A long line of research is related to justice in the workplace. Justness is often socially constructed amongst coworkers. This is to say, the majority must agree that an act is fair. Of note, the procedures by which organizations make decisions are often referred to as procedural justice. This is to say, procedures in workplaces must be fair. This perception of procedural fairness is often called “voice.” Voice has been linked to all sorts of important organizational and personal outcomes- job satisfaction, organizational commitment, evaluation of authority, organizational citizenship behavior, withdrawal, performance) [ii] In the extreme case of inadequate procedural justice (i.e. no voice), whistleblowing may be the only option (bad news!- a topic I covered here). My point? Research is not new here. Clearly, silencing speech seems unjust, and can lead to negative consequences for business and employees alike.
Why do employees stay silent in the workplace… in theory?
All this justice talk is great, and “voice” sounds interesting. However, if you’ve ever thought to yourself “you can’t say that at work,” you may be absolutely correct. There are a long list of consequences beyond justice for individuals to consider. When does a person feel the need to censor himself or herself? Why might an employee choose to be silent?
In a fascinating study, business scholars James Detert of Cornell University and Amy Edmondson of Harvard set out to find out why some employees hold back. They called the concept implicit voice theories, defined as “taken-for-granted beliefs about when and why speaking up at work is risky or inappropriate.”[iii] The study developed a generalizable theory of why people remain silent on important business matters, especially with those with power within the organization. The research was well grounded by gathering data from executives, business professionals, and MBA students. The table below shows some of their results. On the left are the theories; on the right are more detailed explanations and examples.
|Implicit Voice Theories||Explanation and Example[iv]|
|Presumed target identification||The specific subject is something a boss is attached to. If you speak up, you may be attacking him/her because it is seen as his/her idea.
|Need solid data or solutions||An employee may not have enough data to complain. If you speak up, you need to “prove it.”
|Don’t bypass the boss upward||There are consequences for working around a boss. If you speak up to a higher level, this can be seen as “undermining.”
|Don’t embarrass the boss in public||There are norms of talking to the boss first, not just springing it on them. If you bring up a sore spot in front of others, this can be seen as “putting the boss on the spot.”
|Negative career consequences||There are norms of making the right impression. Speaking up inappropriately can be seen as “career damaging.”
Perhaps you may recognize some of these reasons. Perhaps you’ve heard a story from a coworker about experiencing negative consequences as a result of speaking up. Maybe you’ve experienced negative consequences yourself. Once bitten, twice shy? Wiser for the wear? Gulp. Speaking up isn’t always easy, nor always beneficial for individuals.
When do organizations react to speech outside the workplace… in practice?
Now, another challenging issue – workplace consequences for employee speech when off-the-job. When does the organization need to censor employees?
A common criteria for evaluating action for off duty speech is the “job nexus.” This means evaluating the speech act in question as it relates to the employee’s job. If the employee’s speech act undermines their job or the organization, this can be justification for organizational disciplinary action. For example, job nexus arguments may consider the employee’s role. If a low-level employee tweets[vii] something questionable, the impacts may be minor, and ignored. If a salesperson tweets about customers in a degrading fashion, that may affect the legitimacy of the salesperson (job) and the perception of the organization. If a top-level manager (or even a store manager) says something in direct contrast of organizational values, that may be grounds for serious actions. As the role changes, speech may be interpreted and treated differently. The line between “speaking freely” and “speaking out of line” blurs. Quasi-legal advice from the Society for Human Resource Management[v] states: The more closely related speech is to a public employee’s position, the less likely it is to garner First Amendment protection…” [vi]
Of note, the organization also has some right to free speech. In fact, an organization’s actions may be considered organizational speech. Other organizational actions, such as political donations, are considered within the rights of the organization’s free speech. In effect, a disciplinary action against an employee for off-the-job speech could be the organization freely stating “this is not who we are.” However, where to draw lines for the organization’s speech rights beyond job nexus can be very difficult.
Back to the genesis of this blog entry… the case of Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson. The discussion of free speech rights related to Mr. Robertson’s punishment is misleading. Those individuals that used Robertson’s situation as a means to defend the right to free speech are missing the point- that he did use that right. Mr. Robertson was not denied his right to free speech by A&E, and he spoke his mind. The issue at hand is the employer’s reaction Mr. Robertson’s- the consequences. While suspended by A&E, Mr. Robertson was not denied free speech by the network, only the use of the network as a medium for a period of time. A&E has the right to choose to refuse to be a channel for certain types of speech. This choice is also free speech.
One can bet that the HR department is put in difficult situations when it comes to off-the-job speech. Policies help define norms for how this type of behavior may be interpreted, and usually do provide some legal cover for certain organization actions. Beyond the job nexus, it might prove difficult to determine standards of discipline for off-the-job speech. However, the organization can choose to speak itself. Balancing the interests of employee expression and employer expression is a challenge.
The evasive conclusion…
I’m not sure there is a conclusion here. Organizations’ reactions to speech acts are messy. Workplace reactions lead to consequences that can be both positive and negative. Facilitating business-related discussions is vital for all sorts of individual and organizational outcomes. Sometimes the work context can constrain speech. There seem to be strong implied norms that prevent meaningful discussions from occurring within organizational boundaries. It seems sometimes restrained speech is in the interest of the employee. The workplace consequences for employee non-workplace (off-duty) speech acts are unclear, but the job nexus is a common consideration. Both employee and employer have speech rights.
Who’s tired at this point, besides me? I’ll shut up now. (Get it?)
So, my questions to you, colleagues and intellectual superiors:
- Do you feel your job and/or organization constrains your speech?
- Do you avoid raising your voice in the workplace? Why or why not?
- Where is the line between work and personal opinion in your job? Does your organization help you understand this line?
- What is the organization to do in evaluating employee speech off-the-job?
As always, please click “comments” and “Leave a reply” below. I’d be honored!
*Note, this conversation is limited. I specifically do not discuss certain free speech acts, such as expressions of religious belief. I’m not neglecting other important speech acts, merely scoping for this particular discussion. Feel free to tactfully (gulp) weigh in below! I reserve the right to limit your speech as controller of this little blog.
[i] Duck Dynasty is intellectual property of A&E Television Networks, LLC. All rights reserved- I assume anyway.
[ii] Colquitt, J. A., Conlon, D. E., Wesson, M. J., Porter, C. O., & Ng, K. Y. (2001). Justice at the millennium: a meta-analytic review of 25 years of organizational justice research. Journal of applied psychology, 86(3), 425.
[iii] Detert, J. R., & Edmondson, A. C. (2011). Implicit voice theories: Taken-for-granted rules of self-censorship at work. Academy of Management Journal, 54(3), 461-488.
[iv] My own translations- probably skewed by professional experience! The quotations/statements come from portions of the Detert & Edmondson study.
[v] I am a dues-paying member of SHRM. This membership does not imply endorsement of all SHRM-sanctioned activities or positions on employment concerns.
[vi] Middlebrooks, David J., and Connova, Matthew J. No First Amendment Protection for Speech that Contradicted Employer’s Policy. January 25, 2013. http://www.shrm.org/legalissues/federalresources/pages/no-first-amendment-protection-speech-contradicted-employers-policy.aspx Accessed 3/19/2014.
[vii] I believe tweet is a trademark of Twitter. Speaking of which, follow me!