How safe do we feel to speak up at work?

By Louisa Baczor, Research Advisor at the CIPD

Toxic workplace cultures have recently been very prominent in public debate. Last year’s scandals included allegations of bullying and harassment in Westminster, and the exposure of Sir Philip Green’s use of non-disclosure agreements to cover up claims of abuse by employees. Most recently, staff at Ted Baker launched a petition to complain about the CEO’s inappropriate behaviour and ‘forced hugging’. These revelations have raised pertinent questions around how organisations can create environments in which individuals feel safe and supported to speak up. This is important not only because of the reputational and financial risks to organisations in failing to properly address these workplace issues. Employers should not overlook the impact on the workers themselves.

Psychological safety in the workplace is employees’ feelings about taking risks and sharing thoughts with others in the organisation, and it provides a bedrock for employee voice. Before an individual speaks up, they make a judgement about whether doing so will be effective, and assess any risks or potential negative outcomes they may face as a result. As you’d expect, people are more likely to remain silent if they believe that the costs of speaking up outweigh the benefits – for example, if they feel that nothing would be done about it, or that their position in the organisation would be threatened. A Unions21 report found that many low-skilled young professionals feel they’re treated unfairly at work, but a lack of empowerment means speaking up could harm their career prospects, so they opt for leaving the company instead.

Power dynamics can therefore be a significant barrier to voice. Individuals may have great ideas to improve the way things are done in the organisation and foster innovation, but hold back because they worry about being judged negatively or treading on the toes of a more senior colleague. While preventing important suggestions and issues from being raised, this can harm their sense of well-being and motivation at work.

So, how can employers provide opportunities for all workers to speak up on matters that are important to them? Like so many areas of people management practice, managerial behaviour has a vital role to play. While they may have good intentions about encouraging people to openly share their feelings, line managers may inadvertently show attitudes or behaviour that discourage voice. For example, they may appear too busy or stressed to discuss personal matters. This points to the need for all managers to be trained to understand the value of employee voice and the impact of their leadership style on individuals’ ability to voice issues.

Our upcoming research with Nottingham Business School provides insight on people’s experience of speaking up at work, and the factors which enable or prevent them from doing so. This is based on a new employee survey and is due to be launched at the end of February.

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  • I believe that this is a topic that should be covered in every business school. Especially in today's day and age, where a huge spotlight is being shown on abuses in the workplace. All future managers should have a clear understanding of boundaries and be open to receiving feedback from their employees.

  • It will be interesting to see if people become more confident speaking up at work now that remote working is becoming popular. If I had to guess, I would say that the perception of distance that remote working creates would lead to more confidence when it comes to speaking up.

  • This topic is really important right now. I've watched a lot of documentaries and even witnessed it when my colleague expressed his thought he was fired instantly. 

  • Whenever I hire a new employee I always try to let them know during their orientation that they are in an open environment where they are free to speak their mind. I have worked in toxic workplaces in the past and I am determined not to let my office turn into such a place.

  • Thank you so much for bringing up this issue. I feel like this is more relevant right now than ever. I have recently began working as a supervisor after a few years as an entry level employee. This experience has given me a very clear view of the psychological dynamics at play between individuals at different levels in the corporate hierarchy. Employees most certainly feel pressure from supervisors and managers to conform and rarely are individuals encouraged to express their opinions. Now is the time for change and employee empowerment.