Employee Relations

Breaking the Sound Barrier

Employee silence kills. According to published reports, nearly 98,000 Americans die each year due to avoidable medical errors; more than the total number of U.S. fatalities resulting from motor vehicle accidents, breast cancer or AIDS.  Sadly, many of these errors may result from employees choosing to withhold important information such as suggestions, questions or concerns. Often though, employee silence does not have such grave consequences as human mortality, but still may profoundly impact the functioning of an organization. The balance of this article examines the phenomenon of employee silence, the conditions under which it is more prevalent, and the steps organizations can take to encourage effective communication among employees.

What is Employee Silence?

Employee silence is characterized by the intentional withholding of important information. Specifically, this type of noncommunication results from one’s conscious decisions not to share information, and is not represented by unintentionally failing to provide, or otherwise overlooking information. One survey reported that as many as 85% of respondents remained silent on some of their work concerns. Because the phenomenon of employee silence is internal and unobservable, it is difficult to recognize or measure. That is, it isn’t always possible to know whether one is remaining silent on important issues intentionally, or simply because they don’t have anything to say. Depending on the situation, one may be silent regarding a particular topic (e.g., methods for evaluating job performance, internal or external pay equity, fairness in promotional opportunities, etc.), when speaking to a certain actor (entry-level employee, supervisor, director, or executive), or with a particular target (employees, customers, suppliers, regulators, etc.). Without question employee silence is a multifaceted construct. We’ll now spend some time exploring potential moderators of silence behavior.

What Influences Employee Silence Behavior?

Research has uncovered at least four influences on employee silence behavior: workgroup identification, professional commitment, justice perceptions, and supervisory status. One is said to have a high level of identification with their workgroup when they experience (or perceive) a sense of oneness or belongingness with the group, such that the group’s successes and failures are personalized. Thus, those employees who experience higher levels of workgroup identification are less likely to remain silent. Similarly, the more committed one is to their profession (e.g., social work, teaching, etc.,) the less likely they are to remain silent regarding important work issues. They are likely to experience positive emotions and feelings about their work, and report greater levels of attachment to their work. People with higher levels of professional commitment are often compelled by feelings of morality and personal responsibility to speak up when necessary. One feels a sense of procedural justice when they perceive the decisions made by the organization to be consistent, accurate, correctable and free from bias. When perceptions of procedural justice are higher, levels of employee silence behavior are likely to be lower. That is, employees believe their concerns will be addressed ethically and without bias, lowering fears of blame and victimization. Finally, employees who believe their supervisor has considerable status in the organization (i.e., influence, authority, support, etc.,) are more likely to remain silent. That is, when supervisor status is high, so is employee silence. One might argue that employees’ fears regarding the potential for negative consequences from communicating outweigh the potential benefits for doing so. Interestingly, while a supervisor with high status could theoretically help one’s career as much they could hinder it, employees tend to focus on avoiding negative interactions more so than seeking positive ones.

Group Level Moderating Effects

To this point we’ve illustrated how employee silence behavior is influenced by an individual’s perceptions of workgroup identification, professional commitment, justice perceptions, and supervisory status. However, individuals commonly behave in ways that are consistent with group expectations, or are otherwise supported by a larger group of people. So how might these relationships change given group opinions? Research exploring the effect of group level perceptions of procedural justice, referred to as procedural justice climate, has found effects for employee silence behavior. Specifically, when procedural justice climate is high, the effects found for workgroup identification and professional commitment on employee silence behavior were strengthened. Stated alternatively, when members of a group believe an organization’s actions to be consistent, accurate, correctable and free from bias, there is a greater likelihood that employees will speak up regarding relevant issues, more so than when an individual holds these perceptions alone.

Implications for Practice

Clearly there are organizational benefits for limiting employee silence behavior, particularly when the consequences of silence deal with issues of human mortality. So what steps can organizations take to encourage their employees to speak up? Organizational leaders should work to create environments where procedural justice perceptions will be high.  We know of no published research stating that processes which are consistent, accurate, correctable and free from bias have negative consequences on valued organizational outcomes. Of course, this may be easier said than done. Leaders must examine at a macro level the organization’s values, policies, mission, goals, operating procedures and communication mechanisms, and then determine how these are implemented, enforced, operationalized – and most importantly – perceived by its employees. Only then will it be possible to know where the procedural justice strengths and weaknesses lie. Operationally, leaders can encourage employees to avoid silence behavior by being more participative in decision making, allowing them to share their concerns in a “consequence free” way, and by building cohesive workgroups. It also is important to value employees’ opinions and suggestions and to build a network of open communication. Again, with a greater sense of belonging and oneness with a group come higher levels of organizational commitment and less employee silence behavior. For those leaders who may be perceived as having high “status” in the organization, make attempts to delegate activities or decision making on a more frequent basis to connect with the workgroup. Also, rather than only encouraging employees to approach leadership with suggestions, questions, comments or concerns, high status leaders should actively seek out this information from employees. This will help to create the network of open communication, and demonstrate to employees that leadership is interested in their thoughts, opinions and contributions. Finally, try to tie employees’ efforts back to the general mission, goals and values of the organization. When employees see how their efforts contribute to the functioning of the organization, they are more likely to be engaged and committed to their work, and less likely to remain silent on critical issues.

Interpretation by:

Anthony Adorno

The DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from Subrahmaniam, T. and Rangaraj, R. (2008). Employee Silence on Critical Work Issues: The Cross Level Effects of Procedural Justice Climate, Personnel Psychology, 61, 37-68.