Decisions: Why criteria matters…

“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” -Theodore Roosevelt, former U.S. President, and my personal SUPERHERO

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” – Attributed (somewhat) to Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra, Hall of Fame Baseball Player and Coach

Carlson School and the Minneapolis Skyline

Carlson School of Management- Is this a good decision? (YES, but it may depend on your criteria…)

Every day we run into decisions.  We have to make choices on what to eat, how to plan our days.  Some decisions are even harder, such as the decision to leave a job, or move to a new city to pursue an opportunity.  For many decisions, we simply do not have all the necessary information to make the ‘best’ decisions, and it may be unrealistic to believe that we would.  And often we second guess ourselves.  So what is a decision maker to do?

In an age of widespread information, we’d like to think that we have the opportunity to approach decisions rationally.  Spoiler alert: research indicates that decision making is rarely, if ever, purely rational.  But with information and the right process, perhaps we can be better decision makers.

In this entry, we’ll explore an example of a big decision tool in the world of business education- school rankings (total homer example here, as a business academic). Let’s think together!

What do you mean by rational decision making?

In our management class here at the Carlson School of Management, we have a specific learning unit focused on decision making.  We begin by considering a purely rational decision making process.  Under a theory of rational choice, individuals make decisions in order to optimize self-interest.  This is to say, individuals try to make the outcome of decision to work out in their favor.  But how does one do that? Max Bazerman, Jesse Isidor Straus Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, has studied decision making for years.  He outlines a six step process:

  1. A problem or opportunity is defined.
  2. Objectives and goals are identified.
  3. Objectives are weighted according to the importance of each.
  4. Possible courses of action and alternatives are considers
  5. Each objective is rated according to how well it will achieve the desired course of action.
  6. The optimal decision is chosen.[i]

This is a pretty straight forward model.  So what goes wrong?

Rationale vs. Reality…

As with any theory, rational decision theory begins with a number of premises that have merit, but sometimes don’t translate well in workplaces.  For example, rational choice theory, like many economic theories, hinges heavily on the information available to the decision maker.

In reality, managers are presented with imperfect information at best, or even misleading information.  Managers may not have adequate time to go through all of the six steps outlined above, many of which are very complex.  Further, many of us may not be prepared to fully digest such a model.

Decision Time: The Conundrum of College Rankings

So let’s think together about a BIG decision: which business school to attend?  Imagine yourself as a teenager, about to choose which college you want to attend for your undergrad degree.  What information is helpful?  We actually discussed this decision in management class this fall at the University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management. When we discussed this in class, it turns out the many students used business school rankings.  But what do rankings mean?

Check out the examples below of multiple sources of business school rankings.  Also, you’ll find the rankings of one particular institution, the Carlson School of Management, are included.

Source Criteria and information used Rank of Carlson School of Management (most recent)
Bloomberg BusinessWeek · Student assessment survey (30%)​

· Academic quality (30%)​

· SAT score, ratio of students to faculty, % of students w/ internships, hours of class work per week

· Employer opinion survey (20%)​

· Median starting salary (10%)​

· Feeder school for top MBA programs (10%)​

46th (2014)
U.S. News & World Report  · Survey of Deans and senior faculty​

· Rate the quality of all programs they were familiar with​

· Nominate the 10 best programs in specialties​

· Independent third party conducts survey​

15th (2015)
(13th in Management specialty… cough… brag… cough)
Poets & Quants · 1/3 weighted BusinessWeek (above), US News & World Report of undergrad business programs (above), and US News & World Report of nationally ranked universities 33rd (2014)

So where does this leave you, or 18-year old you?  The process of identifying issues and making choices from alternatives is difficult work. Depending on which ranking one chooses, Carlson may be ranked a “Top 15” institution, or a middle of the pack, commendable 46th overall.   Revisiting our model for decisions, let’s examine our 18-year old decision problem

  1. A problem or opportunity is defined.
    “I can apply to this school or that school”
  2. Objectives and goals are identified.
    “I want a highly ranked school.”
  3. Objectives are weighted according to the importance of each.
    “Which rankings matter?”
  4. Possible courses of action and alternatives are considers
    “Why do I agree with rankings? This is confusing…”
  5. Each objective is rated according to how well it will achieve the desired course of action.
    “Ummmmm, I just got a text, and I’m over this.”
  6. The optimal decision is chosen.[ii]
  7. Pizza or tacos?
    “Tacos. Definitely tacos.”

The point?  Rankings only matter in relation to one’s agreement with the ranking criteria.  One has to dig deeper to understand whether the decision maker’s criteria match the ratings.  Think it gets easier later in business school life? Don’t get me started on varying criteria for constructing MBA rankings (more here).

Conclusion (and a preview)

There really isn’t new ground broken here in this post.  Many others have ranted and raved about the methodologies making decisions, and the helpfulness of ranking systems.  What matters most in many decisions is a solid use of agreed upon criteria.  For business schools, as an example, one must be clear on what criteria matters…

So we’ve established that criteria matters. Where to next in our quest for decision-making advice?  Next time we’ll have a chat about other factors that mess with our decisions, such as bias.

PREVIEW: data doesn’t always save you, if you don’t look at data objectively. (Cue dramatic music)

Good luck to us all!  Don’t be afraid to leave a comment below!!!


[i] As applied from Gulati, R., Mayo, A. J., & Nohria, N. (2014). Management (1st ed.). Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.

(click on links above for ranking criteria)

PHOTO CREDIT: 2010-2015 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.


Business/Organizational Culture and Society: Why the debate over the name “Washington Redskins” matters…

washington_caucAsWashington_Redskins_Helmetwashington_racists4 much as I grew up watching the Washington Redskins football team (Art Monk!!
, I cannot support the team due to its logo and name. The name is largely derived from a slang term for the scalp of a Native American, which was sold for cash like a bounty on the lives of Natives (used by Westerners during conflicts with tribes). More bluntly, Redskins were valuable souvenirs of racially-charged murders (more here).[i]

The history of Native Americans, especially in the part of the country where I currently reside (Minnesota), is one in which Native Americans experienced deplorable systematic dispossession of lands and marginalization of the importance of their human dignity and life, largely based in racial and cultural intolerance. This is, in truth, the same series of acts that lead to “Redskin” being a term. (In fact, one party to the recent court cases seeking to change/remove the team name is from the this region) The fact that this name and logo (and other similar logos) can still exist, which specifically identify racial stereotypes as common identities under either A) blatantly racist logos and/or B) team names, is shameful. Try naming another franchise based on skin color for an exercise (see logos from satirists above).

But what does this have to do with work? I thought your blog was about work?

Let me explain… The use of a racially disparaging name as an organizational identity evokes a discussion of organizational culture.

One of the learning units in my Management 1001 course here at the Carlson School of Management is about culture.  Culture, according to our textbook, is defined as “the way individuals in an organization uniquely and collectively think, feel, and act.”[ii]  Further, out text outlines that organizational culture is communicated through artifacts, beliefs and values, and assumptions.  Artifacts represent visible organizational structures, processes and languages. This includes the use of the racially disparaging name and logo. Beliefs and values are the meanings that members of an organization attach to those artifacts.  In this case, the symbol of the franchise is a stereotypical view of Native Americans. Assumptions are behaviors that stem from beliefs held by a group that has been come deeply embedded in the organization.  What does an employee or fan of  the Washington Redskins think about when the arguments about the racially-charged artifacts come up?

Further, the choices businesses make about their cultural artifacts are often passed on to customers.  For example, Starbucks truly involves customers in their brand, educating their customers, involving them in an experience.[iii]  What does it say about an organization that involves its customers deeply in an artifact that makes light of racial-ethnic groups?  The artifacts clearly picture a racial stereotype.  The beliefs and values do not contribute to the honoring of any native culture in particular.  Dan Snyder, owner of the Redskins believes that the name does in fact honor Native Americans, and notes that the franchise began with four Native American players and a Native Head Coach.[iv]

It should be noted here, and I understand, that the association of the “team culture” has grown over time, and that many may choose to argue that this team culture has grown to be separate and distinct from the racially-charged derivation of the term that is still that team’s name. A recent poll from ESPN’s sports journalism show Outside the Lines found that 71% of Americans believed that the name should not be changed.[v]  Heck, a bunch of Washington fans dress up like hogs- which is both AWESOME for the fans (kudos![vi]), and has NOTHING to do with the actual mascot. Does this cultural development outweigh (or at least outlast) the racially-charged derivation of the organization’s artifacts?

Conclusion (and slight personal opinion)

The choices organizations make in their artifacts, believes and values, and assumptions may have deep impacts within the company, and in societies through their customers.  Despite the years of cultural development, the team culture defense ultimately falls short for me. Feel free to disagree (hopefully tactfully).

The National Football League, which largely represents the current national pastime (according to many sports analysts), can be held to account for the cultures that develop around its sports teams.  This is both a strength and weakness of organizational culture.  In the conte  xt of the Redskins, as both a franchise name and artifact, I believe the NFL can do better.

In a broader sense (here comes the personal opinion), a truly great nation, and its cultural leaders (NFL) can acknowledge a nation’s past mistakes, and current social wrongs. The NFL has no requirement here.  This isn’t picking an irrelevant battle against an NFL franchise; it’s acknowledging, as Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton put it, that this sports franchise name is “antiquated, offensive and racist.”[vii] In a reflection of understanding the impact of cultural artifacts, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office revoked six trademarks registered to the team owners, stating that “they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered,” and thus unlawful.  Be careful of the organizational cultural elements that you help to forward in your organization…

My questions to you, my few readers:

What does organizational culture mean to you?

What artifacts, beliefs and values, and assumptions lurk in the halls of your workplace (for better or worse)?

How does culture get socialized in your workplace? To your customers or business partners?


NOTE: Want to know more about your US History? I encourage you to watch Ken Burns’ The West (available on Netflix- note I don’t endorse Netflix, but know many readers use it!).


Images (not intentionally in violation of copyright- and I make no money off of this blog!):

Official Redskins logo- not under trademark- feel free to use it as you see fit



[ii] Gulati, R., Mayo, A. J., & Nohria, N. (2014). Management (1st ed.). Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.


[iv] Snyder, Dan.  Letter to fans dated October 9, 2013. (Link from Washington Post)

[v] Clement, Scott.  “New poll says large majority of Americans believe Redskins should not change name.”  Washington Post. September 2, 2014.

[vi] Redskins fans ‘Hogettes’ retiring news services Jan. 11, 2013 (accessed 10/6/14)

[vii]Gov. Dayton: Redskins Should Change ‘Racist’ Name WCCO Nov. 7, 2013 (accessed 10/6/14)

The perils of high performance- motivation, rewards, and punishments


“No good deed goes unpunished”- Clare Boothe Luce, author and U.S. Ambassador to Italy (1953-1956)[i]

“. . . my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.” Peter Gibbons, character from Office Space[ii]


Question: I’d love to hear folks’ ways to get around “rewarding for poor performance” and “punishing for good performance”. Logically we all think these are wrong, yet we do them all of the time. For example, the faster worker is asked to pick up the slack.  Or everyone knows that “x” cannot perform to expectations, so they don’t get as many assignments as others thus are rewarded.”

Name: Sherry, Training Supervisor

Sherry, this is a great question!  Virtually everyone that works can understand this question.  With all the advances in our understanding of management, all of the empirical data on decision-making, all of the rigor of performance measurement, this question persists.  The story here is again one of motivation (a subject I touched on previously, but distinctly here and here).  There are many questions at play here.  First, what is motivation? I’ll look at how specific process theories of motivation, such as goal-setting and expectancy theory, which may provide some insight.  Second, how do we think about how we define and clarify rewards and punishments? Spoiler alert!  Reinforcement of behavior matters here.  Lastly, why do high-performers have problems with coworkers?  I’ll explain why the high performer may face other costs. This, again, is a lot to discuss.  Let’s think together!

Motivation, in theory, as a process…

To review, the textbook for our intro management class here at the University of Minnesota defines motivation as “the desire, stimulus, or incentive to pursue a particular course of action.”[iii]  Another text in Organizational Behavior defines motivation as “psychological processes that arouse and direct goal-directed behavior.”[iv]Perhaps the simplest definition, the Merriam-Webster defines motivation as “the act or process of giving someone a reason for doing something.”[v]  Given these definitions, how do we take on Sherry’s question?

Distinct from previous discussions on this blog, this question really looks at not just carrots and sticks, but organizational processes.  Process theories go beyond the idea of people’s needs in motivation, to consider why they behave in certain ways to satisfy those needs.[vi]  In workplaces, people and organizations simultaneously set goals in relation to their respective needs.  For the individual, goals direct attention and hopefully lead to satisfied.

One major related area of study is called goal-setting theory. According to long time scholars of goal setting theory Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, the keys to goal setting are 1) clear goals that are measurable and unambiguous, 2) challenging goals that motivate achievement and are accomplishable, 3) commitment to goals gained through shared understanding of those goals, 4) feedback that clarifies performance en route to goals, and 5) an understanding of task complexity, in which goals are reasonably time-bounded (i.e. deadlines are appropriate) and allow individuals to learn.[vii]  Usually performance means meeting goals.  Thus, high performers by definition are more able to meet or exceed goals in work.

Another performance-related theory is expectancy theory.  This area, forwarded by the legendary Victor Vroom, states that employees expect their high efforts lead to performance, which should result in rewards. The three key questions are as follows:

1) Will efforts lead to performance objectives?

2) Will performance objectives lead to rewards?

3) Are the rewards attractive?[viii]

These three questions interact to guide motivation toward performance.  Worker may have differing answers to these questions. Adherence to this theory means Managers should be determining what employees value, defining what the organization expects, setting goals that are challenging and achievable, linking performance and outcomes, and constantly analyzing outcomes.[ix]

Rewards, punishments, and misalignments…

So now that the essentials of goals and expectancies have been laid out, it is time to reinforce good behaviors and eliminate bad behaviors.  Legendary psychologist B.F. Skinner believed that behavior is learned, that rewards encourage behaviors, and punishments can eliminate bad behaviors.  Simply put: rewards are good, punishments are bad, and both drive behavior. This is often referred to as operant conditioning.[x]

So how is all of this goal-setting leading to problems?  This all seems so logical. While there is a long literature in dealing with bad employees, it seems the story in Sherry’s question is different: do we know how to treat good employees? To Sherry’s question, rewards and punishments come into play here.  What seems at play is misalignment.  While systems may be designed with the best intentions of rewarding high performance, the results can indicate otherwise. In a classic article from 1975, Steven Kerr talked of the “Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B.”[xi] For example, managers may want teamwork, but the rewards go to individual efforts within a team.  High performers get rewards for certain performance, and then can get lumped with team work that wasn’t theirs (individually) to begin with.  There may be no “i” in team, but there appears to be a fundamental problem in allocating more work to good workers. Allowing freeloading is not exactly a reward for a high performer, nor a punishment for a low performer. As another example, some areas of behavior in businesses are difficult to measure, such as interpersonal skills and creativity; thus, those behaviors go unrewarded.  In this case, high performance is encouraged, but little or no reinforcement is offered.  In the case of the quote from Office Space at the beginning of the article, the only motivation Peter (protagonist) seems to have is minimal avoidance of punishments, not pursuit of rewards.  Not good.

Peers and the dark side of high performance…

Another punishment for high performers may not even come from organizationally-sanctioned reinforcements.  What happens is that good performance often comes with baggage.  Peers often punish high performers.  This is not new.  Consider the long history of factory workers punishing peers for working “too fast.”  New initial research by Beth Campbell, an incoming professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota (shameless plug!!!), and colleagues indicates high performers can be seen as both threatening and beneficial to coworkers.  The threat or benefit in their study (under review[xii]) had to do with access to work resources.  If resources are limited, peers can feel threatened and competitive toward high performers, often undermining the ‘star’ performer.  If resources are shared, peers gain from working with a star, and thus may socially support the high performer.  Initial analysis seems to indicate that the only buffer to backlash was an individual’s desire to have a positive impact on others.  This is to say, if an individual cares about others and it shows, the backlash appears to be somewhat lessened.  If a workplace claims it is a meritocracy, it would seem that such social punishments, which exist outside of sanctioned awards, can be troubling.


Sherry’s question is a frustrating one for many high performers, managers, and academics.  Years of scholarship point to ways that guide and reward high performance- including goal-setting, the understanding expectancies, and reinforcing behaviors through rewards and punishments.  Years of experience seems to indicate that the results are still mixed.    So what is a reward or punishment?  What is a manager to do?  Alignment matters for organizationally-desired behaviors.  Social environments, including the non-sanctioned actions of peers, can also matter.  Also, since the scholarship from nearly four decades ago is still so relevant, this begs a serious question to managers and researchers alike: How far have we really come with goals, expectancies, and reinforcements?

There is a LOT of work going on in this area, and my hope is that we will continue to improve our ability to recognize performance and address levels (high or low) appropriately. Also, if you figure this out, tell me about it! (Gulp)


[i]also sometimes attributed to Oscar Wilde- maybe Cryptoquote Spoiler can help here?

[ii] Judge, Mike (Director, Writer) (1999) Office Space. [Motion picture]. United States: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Cubicle Inc.

[iii]Gulati, R., Mayo, A. J., & Nohria, N. (2014). Management (1st ed.). Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.

[iv]Kreitner, R., & Kinicki, A. (2001). Organizational Behavior (5th ed.). New York, NY: Irwin/McGraw-Hill.

[v] Merriam-Webster, Inc. (2013). Motivation- Dictionary and Thesaurus. Retrieved October 7, 2013, from

[vi] Read the Gulati chapter on motivation- it’s really good!!! (cite @ pg. 473

[vii] Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting & task performance. Prentice-Hall, Inc.;
good summary from MindTools here: (accessed 5/29/14)

[viii]Vroom, V. H. (1964). Work and motivation.

[ix] Ibid- Gulati et. al (2014) p.475

[x] Summary: McLeod, Saul (2007, 2014).  Skinner- Operant Conditioning.  SimplyPsychology.   accessed 5/29/14

[xi] Kerr, S. (1975). On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B. academy of Management Journal, 18(4), 769-783.

[xii]Campbell-Bush, E. M., Liao, H., Chuang, A., & Dong, Y. (2013, January). Hot Shots and Cool Reception: Social Consequences of High Performance at Work. In Academy of Management Proceedings (Vol. 2013, No. 1, p. 14310). Academy of Management. Currently under review at Academy of Management Journal (as of 5/29/14)


IMAGE: hobvias sudoneighm– (2008) under Creative Commons “doh”

Speech and its Workplace Consequences II: A Sterling Example

In my last post, I covered the messy land of speech and its consequences in the workplace.  It seems I was just days ahead of another speech controversy.  This controversy actually covers speech, organizational actions, and whistleblowing- all subjects I’ve covered before on this very blog.  Perhaps this is a good situation for review.  Let’s (re)think together!

The details…

If you happen to be a U.S. sports fan (a number of my readers reside outside the U.S.), the dominating story in sports is today’s announcement that Donald Sterling, current owner of the National Basketball Association (NBA) Los Angeles Clippers, is banned for life from engaging in NBA business. [i] This punishment stemmed from a leaked conversation in which Sterling discussed race with his girlfriend.  A full 15-minute recording of the discussion in question[ii] is now circulating online.  During the discussion, Sterling voices opinions about race, including a desire that his girlfriend refrain from publicly interacting with black people.  He made particular reference that his girlfriend should not be pictured with blacks, nor bring blacks to LA Clippers games.  There is also extensive discussion of differential treatment of perception of whites, Latinos, and women.

Mr. Sterling was considered “off duty” at the time.  This is to say, he was not working in an official capacity for the Los Angeles Clippers.  You may recall from my last post the concept of “job nexus.” As I stated, a common criteria for evaluating employer 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.  In this case, if the NBA believed a connection between Sterling’s opinions on race and his duties as a franchise owner, the NBA could take action.

The analysis…

So let’s take a look at the situation.  First, the organization, the NBA must consider the nature of race relations as it relates to employment:

  • According to a study by Dr. Richard Lapchick, Director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport[iii] 76.3% of all NBA players and 43.3% of NBA head coaches are African-American.
  • In respect to customers, the data shows that the target media market of the LA Clippers isn’t clear, but the stats gurus over at FiveThirtyEight “estimate the Clippers’ fan base to be 40 percent non-Hispanic white, 27 percent African-American, 22 percent Hispanic and 11 percent Asian-American.”[iv]  Further, the NBA fan base, as a whole (see their calculations), is estimated at 31.4% black.

In the case of Mr. Sterling, the taped conversation is not just a job nexus.  In fact, he explicitly talked about his job as an owner.  He left no doubt about his beliefs as an employer:

Girlfriend: Do you know that you have a whole team that’s black that plays for you?

Sterling: You just, do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have—Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?


This is explicitly about his role as an employer.  This is particularly impactful in his role as owner, in which he pays and, to a lesser extent, directs player and personnel decisions.  I mentioned in my last post that a disciplinary action against an employee for off-the-job speech could be the organization freely stating “this is not who we are.”  The NBA made such a statement today in disciplining Sterling.  Through the decision, the NBA exercised its free speech.

Whistleblowers, revisited

You can find commentary all over social media and the sports news outlets.  One discussion I found interesting was a discussion of Donald Trump on Fox & Friends, a popular talk show.  Trump agreed that the comments by Sterling were awful, but also blamed the source- the girlfriend.  He called her “the girlfriend from Hell[v].”  This takes me back to another previous post on whistleblowing.  The focus of that post was that a person may have various reasons for whistleblowing, and that being a whistleblower isn’t easy. Indeed, it seems that Trump is blaming her for releasing the recording.  What seems to matter is not only that Sterling said it, but that she noticed and told others. As I mentioned, whistleblowing can be damaging, and can be necessary.  I’m not guessing at the girlfriend’s motives for releasing the discussion.  However, going after her is a troubling form of retaliation.


In the end, the information is out there.  Donald Sterling’s comments have a direct connection to his employees, the fans of his organization, and a broader set of business interests. The job nexus argument isn’t necessary- he actually discussed race in his job. The NBA spoke loud and clear- exercising its right to free speech through discipline.  Whistleblowing, no matter the motive, is not a clean business.


On a rare personal note…

As a business scholar/analyst, I think the NBA as an organization only improves its stance with its employees, customers, and society (sports are a big deal here in the U.S.) by acting on this information.  This action did not take courage, nor resolve.  This action was absolutely necessary- beyond business.  Also, if you have to make a business case against discrimination in employment in this situation, I can almost already assure you that you have a problem.  As a human, I’m glad organizations take stances like this.  I don’t usually weigh in on this blog stuff, personally.  I found these comments to be deplorable from a human case. That trumps all other cases.  Period.



[i] Official statement by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on 4/29/2014

[ii] Wagner, Kyle.  “Exclusive: The Extended Donald Sterling Tape.” 4/27/2014.  Accessed on 4/29/2014.

[iii] Lapchick, Richard, Hippert, Andrew,  Rivera, Stephanie, and Robinson, Jason.  (2013) The 2013 Racial and Gender Report Card: National Basketball Association.  accessed on 4/29/2014.

[iv] Silver, Nate. The Clippers, Like Many NBA Teams, Have a Majority-Minority Fan Base.

[v] Moore, Matt.  Donald Trump: Donald Sterling was set up by ‘girlfriend from hell.’ 4/28/2014; accessed 4/29/2014.

Speak now and/or forever hold your peace… Speech and its Workplace Consequences

“If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
George Washington

“Mind your speech a little, lest you should mar your fortunes.”
William Shakespeare

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.

  • “Bosses may feel personal ownership in the tasks I am suggesting are problematic.”
Need solid data or solutions An employee may not have enough data to complain.  If you speak up, you need to “prove it.”

  • “You lack the necessary data to justify your position.”
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.”

  • “My boss would see [speaking up to his boss] as undermining and insubordinate.”
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.”

  • “You should pass it by the boss in private first, so you don’t cut his legs out from under him.”
Negative career consequences There are norms of making the right impression.  Speaking up inappropriately can be seen as “career damaging.”

  • “Speaking up may leave a bad impression and impact future promotions.”

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. Accessed 3/19/2014.

[vii] I believe tweet is a trademark of Twitter.  Speaking of which, follow me!

Work-life balance Part III: Workaholics and Balance in Small Business

“It’s true hard work never killed anyone but I figure why take the chance?”  Ronald Reagan, former U.S. President

“For workaholics, all the eggs of self-esteem are in the basket of work.” Judith M. Bardwick, Business Consultant & Author

Question: “now that having a phone/email in your pocket 24/7 is a universal norm, how does it affect your professional life and how do you unplug on your days off without coming across as lazy or uncaring, and is someone who never unplugs a better employee/manager because they’re always available?”

Name: Dani Sage

Current occupation: Certified Health and Wellness Coach, Wife, Animal mom, Salon manager; “Just A Gluten Intolerant Workaholic In Domestic Bliss!”


Lucky interview: Dani Sage, friend of sine.over.cosine. and vastly superior blogger- (highly recommended!)

Over the past couple of posts, I’ve discussed work-life balance.  Research into work-life balance is often centered on corporate practices, such as employee benefits and policies.  But nearly 50% of the U.S. economy is small businesses, or those firms that employ 500 employees or less.  Small business also represented 65% of job growth from 1995-2011.[i] Starting or managing a small business can be a grind, and the experience of small business owners appears to be unique.

Many small business workers describe themselves as  “workaholics.”  Interestingly, academics have recently honed in on workaholism as a concept.  In a recent summary of previous work on the concept, work psychologists found that “workaholism is related to many negative outcomes such as burnout, job stress, work–life conflict, and decreased physical and mental health.”  In clarifying the definition of a workaholism, the authors found “solid evidence that workaholism is best conceptualized as an addiction to work that leads to many negative individual, interpersonal, and organizational outcomes.[ii]”  An alternative approach taken by Dutch human resource management researchers conceptualized workaholism as “as a compulsive inner drive to work excessively hard.[iii]”  Their approach highlighted that certain personal beliefs contribute to exhaustion and workaholism.  The study followed academic staff members over time, finding that workers’ performance-based self-esteem (self-esteem derived from performing well on the job) and a predisposition to working until “enough work was done” contributed to exhaustion.  Ouch.

The Real World Experience

But what is it like to be a self-confessed workaholic?  Enough of the studies, let’s here some experiences!

Enter Dani Sage.  Dani is a small business owner, friend, and fellow blogger (who, by the way has her act together MUCH more than I do on this blog thing…).  Her blog is The Stay at Work Housewife, which is an apropos title, considering the work-life balance series I’ve been writing.  Dani follows my blog for some reason (I’m honored) and has submitted ideas for previous posts.  One day she sent me a long message about technology, etiquette, the work/life “line,” delegating decisions, and other topics.  To her, and many small business managers, unplugging from work a) isn’t an option, and/or b) needs to happen.

Sooooo, I’m not sure I have a direct answer to Dani’s question.  (I’ve tried to elaborate about general balance here and workplace practices here) So, instead of hitting her with even more theories, I thought I’d ask her about her experience, and then offer some reflection:

s.o.c.: What does work-life balance mean to you? 

Dani: Finding the right work-life balance to me means not letting my career ambitions affect my personal relationships and vice versa. At this stage in my life I feel like it is easy to let my career consume most of my time because I don’t have kids, and most of my friends are at the same place in there career, so they are very understanding if I cancel plans because of something work related.  My biggest challenge with work-life balance is trying not to feel guilty, or less hard working, if I take time away from work (even after work hours) to socialize, or do something for myself.

s.o.c.: What are your biggest passions in and out of the workplace? 

Dani: My biggest passion in the workplace is employee development. I feel that as a manager, you measure your success by the success that you create for others.  I love developing talent in my industry and watching my employees’ career grow, and as a result, their personal lives.

My biggest passion in my personal life is cooking, I really enjoy trying new recipes and entertaining my loved ones.  It is important to me to keep myself and my family going with healthy, fresh meals.

s.o.c.: What is your biggest frustration with work demands? With home demands? 

Dani: As the manager of two busy salons, my biggest frustration with work demands is the expectation to be constantly available. All of my employees know that I have a cell phone, and they don’t hesitate to get ahold of me with questions (questions that could easily be saved for the next business day), I think this problem stems from how casual text messaging feels. Although answering a text doesn’t take much time or effort away from my day/evening off, it is still my work life spilling in to my personal time.

My biggest frustration with home demands is that there doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day. I am usually too tired at the end of my workday to get anything done around the house, so my days off are filled with to-do lists.

s.o.c.: What techniques do you use to help with balancing work and life demands?

I mostly use my two days off during the week to balance out my personal life. On Sundays I take care of my “Have To Do’s” (cleaning, laundry, prepping meals for the week ahead, grocery trips) and Wednesdays are reserved for my “Want To Do’s”; I decompress, catch up on reading, hit up happy hour and I treat myself to a massage every 3 weeks. On my days off my phone is on silent and I only check it every few hours.

It is one of my “work rules” that I leave my home life at home, everyone is human and allowed to have bad days, but no matter what is going on in personal life, it is unacceptable to let it effect my job.

s.o.c: Do you find keeping home issues from affecting your work difficult?

Dani: My team knows that even though Dani as a person has sympathy for [home related] problems, business doesn’t have sympathy, especially in this industry.  People come to us to feel better and they aren’t paying you to have a bad day.



Dani isn’t alone in her struggle to balance work and life demands.  Actually, she pretty much sums up the whole discussion.  Where does one draw lines?  How does one maintain relationships and obligations across work and non-work domains?  This experience seems to fit very well into the previous discussions in this series, and in academic study in general (what we in academia call external validity!).  Leaving work and home separate is a messy business, perhaps especially in small business.

My questions to you:

  • What does balance mean to you?
  • What do you think about the term “workaholic?”
  • How separate are your work and non-work domains in life?
  • What is a small business owner/manager like Dani to do?


Works Cited

[i] Nazar, J.  “16 Surprising facts about small businesses.” September 9, 2013.  accessed 4/3/14  SOURCE: uses US Census data

[ii] Clark, M. A., Michel, J. S., Zhdanova, L., Pui, S. Y., & Baltes, B. B. (2014). All Work and No Play? A Meta-Analytic Examination of the Correlates and Outcomes of Workaholism. Journal of Management, 0149206314522301.

[iii] van Wijhe, C. I., Peeters, M. C., & Schaufeli, W. B. (2014). Enough is Enough: Cognitive Antecedents of Workaholism and Its Aftermath. Human Resource Management.

Quick post: Is college football a job? Unionization of student-athletes and NCAA rules…

As you know, this is a blog about the world of work.  As many of you may not know, I like sports- especially college sports.  This story presented a public debate related to work and sports, which is of course the best of both worlds… so here’s an impromptu post!

In an interesting ruling, the first case of NCAA athletes forming a labor union may occur at Northwestern University. The student-athletes, primarily football players, petitioned for recognition by the university as a labor union. Interestingly, the university argued that athletes were not “employees” while under scholarship. The official decision by the National Labor Relations Board, the government agency that decides if a request for unionization is legitimate under the law, came out today. The NLRB found that the the request was legitimate, and that players may unionize. Of note, the official ruling notes that the plethora of work-like policies and rules show evidence of an employment relationship. For example: Did you know that student athletes had to submit their off-campus leases to the head football coach for final approval? Apparently that university-imposed rule ensures the integrity of the amateur athlete- ensuring he or she does not accept any trade for his or her athletic abilities outside of their university scholarship. Logically, this is actually a reasonable rule with the intent to comply with NCAA rules.  Also, NCAA athletes actually must concede the use of their name while under scholarship.  For example, a student-athlete University of Minnesota recently lost his scholarship eligibility for using his name in a YouTube song… which he was not compensated for at the time of NCAA sanctions….  fascinating…  (for a funny, but sad take, see coverage by The Daily Show here)

One way this NLRB ruling can be interpreted: the rules intended to ensure “amateurism” of athletes may have been a factor in their being deemed “employees.” More simply, compliance with NCAA restrictions that prove amateur status actually shows evidence of an employment exchange. Now that is irony! Grid-irony.

ESPN coverage here:

Read the official ruling here:

Lots of opinions on this one…