Championing employee voice by speaking truth to power

By Jake Young, CIPD Research Associate

We know that enabling employee voice is important and benefits both the employer and employee. Having voice, first and foremost, allows employees to influence matters that they deem important. Our CIPD research shows that this helps give meaning to their work, ensuring a good quality of working life. This is not to forget the positive organisational benefits voice can bring, such as improving engagement and reducing absenteeism. In this way, organisations benefit from encouraging their employees to speak up and voice fresh ideas. Unfortunately, CIPD research on good work and job quality indicates that enablement through voice is far from being a mainstay of all UK jobs. Too often, we silence others who wish to bring up difficult topics, such as sexual harassment. Perhaps more worryingly, we tend to silence ourselves instead of speaking up and being empowered through speaking about the truth. This is often termed ‘speaking truth to power’.

Researchers Megan Reitz and John Higgins, of Hult International Business School, used first and second-hand person inquiry to explore speaking up in the workplace and enabling others to do so. Their work focused specifically on sexual harassment at work, but it’s important to note that this subject fits in a much wider debate concerning both gender and the act of silencing of ourselves and others. A number of themes emerge from Reitz and Higgins’ work, particularly concerning the behaviour of leaders when faced with issues such as sexual harassment. First, whether it be because of their role, personality or social circle, leaders may find that people think twice about speaking up to them with serious concerns.

Most good leaders will believe themselves to be welcoming and friendly, but often fail to acknowledge how daunting it may actually be to approach them. Simply being in power distances and isolates a leader from the rest of their workforce. This may result in people bringing forward sanitised, false versions of reality to their managers. Furthermore, all of us are guilty of keeping a ‘little list’ of those we trust the most, in all aspects of life. This is particularly true of leaders. Outwardly projecting an attitude of ‘everyone’s voice must be heard’ is somewhat undermined when a leader has a small number of people they prefer to listen to.

Accessing the collaborative and complimentary efforts of different members of an organisation becomes difficult when those at the top are the least able, or least willing, to consider opportunities outside their immediate circle. Concerns also continue to increase about ‘post-truth’ corporate realities which are shaped by the personal beliefs of powerful and charismatic individuals. Consequently, triumph of the will undermines truth and reality. Combined, these issues are problematic for organisations. Underestimating the complexities and consequences of how truth can, or cannot, be spoken to those in power can be extremely problematic.

Problems exist not only for those whose responsibility it is to encourage others to speak up, but also for those who wish to voice their concerns about sexual harassment. Reitz and Higgins uncover five key themes which are relevant when discussing how to make more informed decisions about speaking up.

  • The first is conviction, meaning a person’s belief in the value of their opinion. Workers lower down the organisational hierarchy often lack assurance over whether they have the right to speak up, or if there is value to what they say.

  • Individuals also tend to associate speaking up with a high level of risk, particularly in the context of a topic such as sexual harassment. Concerns about being fired, shamed or losing reputation as a result of whistleblowing often prevent employees from saying anything.

  • Political awareness also affects the likelihood of an individual speaking truth to power. Employees are aware of the games played in an organisation and the political consequences of voicing serious concerns over behaviour. Many avoid disturbing agendas in order to maintain the company’s status quo.

  • Similarly, social awareness of labels often prevents speaking up. A man who wants to make his voice heard might come across labels such as ‘men can’t be victims of sexual harassment’, or ‘you’re lucky’. Similarly, the label of ‘young female’ might have little influence without making allegiances with the powerful.

  • Finally, judgement, or a lack thereof, often influences speaking truth to power. Bringing up a difficult subject involves knowing what to say, who to say it to, and when and how to say it. It requires confidence, conviction and a great deal of thought. Even then, it can easily backfire.

So, there are a number of difficulties we face when attempting to speak up about sexual harassment and encouraging others to do so. It’s clear that responsibility for facilitating speaking truth to power does not fall solely on the shoulders of those who wish to voice concerns to a leader. Indeed, as well as leaders, HR has a responsibility to foster an environment in which difficult subjects are spoken about openly and without judgement. We will explore this in the second part of this blog series.

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