Speak up culture is a positive symptom of the many workplace cultural changes we’ve witnessed over recent decades. It has driven progress in the fields of DEI and learning while spearheading the emergence of more innovative workplaces. As described by one academic article…

“[speak up culture is the] Voice, or employees’ upward expression of challenging but constructive concerns or ideas on work-related issues, can play a critical role in improving organizational effectiveness. Despite its importance, evidence suggests that many managers are often hesitant to solicit voice from their employees. … Voice is a distinctive behavior that involves an escalation of opinions, ideas, or concerns by employees to their managers with the expectation that they would respond by making systemic changes in their teams.”

Speak up culture provides the foundation for better workplace innovation but also workplace safety. People who feel safe and emboldened to speak their minds grow themselves as professionals but also contribute to the collective growth of the workplace they share with so many others.

Empowering speaks up culture through leadership.

Yes, leaders set the tone for the presence (or lack thereof) of speak up culture. Despite the vast benefits of speak up culture, its not always the easiest for leaders to relinquish control and show vulnerability in a way that empowers speak up culture. Leaders are responsible for creating the safety and creativity catalyzed by a strong speak up culture.

We accomplish this by actively rewarding transparency and collaboration. Managerial leaders provide an invaluable bridge between the frontlines and the c-suite of an organization. If they are not empowered to report honest candid assessments from their end, then its hard to imagine them doing the same within their team.

Organizations must empower the various levels of their workplace with the courage to communicate with transparency. Without that we lose the invaluable insights that can be gained with daily interaction between all employees.

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Speak up culture vs. Zero tolerance culture

To be clear, Zero Tolerance is an important stance regarding issues of violence, fraud, safety, or harassment. It is critical to have strongly worded and vigorously enforced policies, especially when dealing with behavior that is illegal, that threatens employee or public safety. The inability to enforce proper safety is both morally wrong and creates much broader risks to an organization in the short and long term.

With that said, zero tolerance policies cannot be black and white. Without room for nuance, we might make employees fearful of speaking up. Policies that are vague inherently aren’t transparent. In turn, they give workplaces a sense of pause and anxiety around these policies.

The EEOC has cautioned that using the phrase “zero tolerance” may lead employees to believe that the company will automatically impose the same discipline–termination–regardless of whether misconduct is minor or devastating. But employees often don’t want their coworkers, or even their boss, to get fired over a minor offense.

This is where nuance helps ensure company policies enforce safety and empower speak up culture. It’s necessary to establish clear tiers and protocols for different scenarios. Ideally, these protocols are clear in instances of egregious violations but are comprehensive in other instances.

This blend provides the proper platform for courageous dialogue. We provide the ingredients for speak up culture as well as the ideal growth outcomes we hope that is can catalyze.

But what does this middle ground look like? What are some nuanced incidences where speak up culture takes priority over workplace discipline? When are instances that speak up culture crosses the line and becomes detrimental to workplace inclusion and even safety?

When Does Speak Up Culture Cross the Line?

The grey area between speak up culture, free speech, discipline, and suppression, can be very sensitive. Where does one end and the other begin? When does speak up culture cross the line? How does an organization take the role of moderator in a way that protects employees’ psychological safety while also encouraging their employees to make their thoughts heard?

Understanding Free Speech in The Workplace

Under both state and federal law, employers are permitted to regulate the speech of their employees under a wide variety of circumstances. Critically, those rights extend not only to employee speech at work but also to employee speech away from work.

SHRM summarizes the first amendment as follows: The First Amendment guarantees citizens the protection of free speech from intrusion by the federal government, explained Grant Alexander, an attorney with Alston & Bird in Los Angeles. “The First Amendment does not apply to private actors, and employers are private actors.”

Thus, government employees do have some First Amendment protections. “Employees working in the private sector often [don’t understand] that the constitutional First Amendment right to free speech applies to government employees but not employees working for businesses,” said Christopher Olmsted, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in San Diego.

But that doesn’t mean that businesses can curb all employee speech. For instance, private-sector employees have the right to engage in concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This applies to workers in both union and nonunion settings.

Boiling Down the Role of Organizations as Moderators of the Public Forum

Just because workplaces have the right to limit free speech doesn’t mean they should. In fact, it could be argued that companies should try and avoid such practices at all costs. With the right workplace culture in place, they are more likely to avoid the need to. These situations can be mostly avoided under a few conditions.

Strong company values hold the key

Beyond the obvious instances of blatantly discriminatory behavior (for example), strong company values help fill the grey areas between acceptable and unacceptable speech. A foundation built on strong values ensures the following.

  1. All employees are aware of the values that dictate acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
  2. There is equal and objective enforcement of standards that uphold company values.
  3. Companies can approach both speak up culture and free speech with the nuance it requires to keep the workforce engaged and psychologically safe.

For example, if a company encourages political expression by one side of the aisle, it should also encourage expression from the opposing side. However, we can agree in instances of free speech being personally hurtful or discriminatory to a group of colleagues (a la infamous 2017 Google Manifesto).

This example shows a potential balance between encouraging expression and disagreement while protecting people’s psychological safety.