The Culture of Silence: Its Chilling Effect on the Workplace

Posted November 29, 2018

Introduction

Recently, a disheartening experience concerning a member of CSU 52 was shared at a union event. Apparently, at one particular location, management has implemented a policy restricting the number of “bathroom breaks” and the amount of time per visit. The Shop Steward at this location explained, “Employees are followed to the washroom, timed by their supervision, and confronted if viewed in violation.” In this instance, the member concerned has a medical condition that requires frequent washroom visits. In fear of retaliation, this worker resorted to wearing adult diapers to accommodate these demands. Unfortunately, there has been no official complaint and thus no efforts to straighten out this situation. You may think this is an extreme case or a “one off,” but in reality, many members have expressed an apprehension or fear of speaking to their union about a variety of workplace issues. Discovering why this phenomenon exists and how we go about correcting this barrier are the attention of this article.

The Culture of Silence

The first step to addressing the impacts of a culture of silence is to understand the factors contributing to this type of environment. Three factors stand out: the organizational climate; the behaviours and attitudes of managers and supervisors; and the system of power and authority in the workplace. The following discusses these factors that contribute to the culture of silence.

Examining organizational climate offers insight into the context and framework within which this culture develops. Does the organization prioritize cost control and productivity over investing in systems, processes and tools for open communication? Scrutinizing these types of questions are predictors of the likelihood for a culture of silence.  For example, Platt and Saundry (2017) explained that organizations that prioritize cost control also usually have a directive, command and control management style that is not conducive for free employee voice (p. 14). On the other hand, ensuring support for an open and transparent culture includes providing the managers and supervisors with what they need. To name a few examples, line level management need to be given the time to discuss, listen and respond, communications resources such as informal and formal mechanisms, soft skills training, and HR support with a meaningful connection. In order to change the culture of silence, “It is the responsibility of senior management to ensure that the organisational context is aligned to support…an open and transparent culture” (Platt & Saundry, 2017, p. 13). 

Not surprising, the context influences the behaviours and attitudes of managers and supervisors. There are two trends among managers and supervisors that commonly exist in a culture of silence. First, managers and supervisors feel threatened by negative feedback particularly from subordinates (Morrison & Milliken, 2000, p. 708). In fact, studies show the strongest predictor of the culture of silence is the attitude of the direct supervisor to feedback from subordinates (Vakola & Bouradas, 2005, p. 451). The second trend is their common implicit beliefs: that workers are only self-interested and cannot be trusted with the organizations best interests; that management knows best and therefore must direct and control; and that agreement and consensus are signs of organizational health and argument should be avoided (Morrison & Milliken, 2000, p. 710). Morrison & Milliken (2000) identified eight variables that increase the likelihood of these two trends among managers and supervisors; managers and supervisors who: are predominantly from economic or financial backgrounds; have longer than average tenures; are from a homogeneous cultural background; have a high level of dissimilarity between management and employees (i.e.: gender, race, and ethnicity); place a higher emphasis on cost control; work in more mature organizations; where multi-levels of hierarchy are present and particularly if the top levels of management are externally hired rather than from being promoted from within; and with an increased use of a temporary workforce (Morrison & Milliken, 2000, pp. 710-712). The behaviour and attitudes of managers and supervisors stem from both the organizational climate and the system of power and authority in the workplace. 

This brings us to the third factor that contributes to a culture of silence. The system of power and authority in the workplace has been impacted by a key concept called the doctrine of management rights (also called residual rights). These rights are well entrenched in labour law and recognize the rights of the employer to manage all aspects of human resources, and to plan, direct and control all operations. However, there are limits of reasonableness and fairness that are expected within an employment relationship. For example, employers cannot direct you to do illegal activities. This also applies for union employers whereby “anything that is not specifically included within the collective agreement remains, by default, under the sole authority of management” (Godard, 2011, p. 297). Traditionally, organizations have evolved into hierarchical structures with decision making concentrated at the top. Morrison & Milliken (2000) described when a culture of silence exists, an organization will have “centralized (non-participatory) decision making” (p. 713). Similarly, communications channels are often one directional and organizations “will be less likely to have formal upward feedback mechanisms” (Morrison & Milliken, 2000, p. 713). With regard to informal feedback, the reactions tend to be rejection and dismissal. Often organizations “implicitly convey to employees that they should not “rock the boat”… [and] are generally intolerant of dissent” (Morrison & Milliken, 2000, p. 706). These non-participatory and negative environments create the perception among workers that their voices do not matter or there is too much at risk. 

Therefore, if a worker or a group of workers are dissatisfied with management for a perceived wrong-doing they may chose not to speak up about it. Many workers “might assume that speaking up will make no difference and/or that speaking up will result in negative repercussions” (Al-Busaidi, 2014, p. 1). Researchers Ryan and Oestreich conducted a survey that found 70% of respondents “felt afraid to speak up about issues or problems that they encountered at work” (as cited in Morrison & Milliken, 2000, p. 706). Further, Ryan and Oestreich found the reasons were “that they feared there would be negative repercussions for speaking up, and they did not believe that speaking up would make a difference” (as cited in Morrison & Milliken, 2000, p. 707). These commonly held perceptions are cultivated from within a culture of silence.

The Effect of a Culture of Silence on the Workplace

Once a culture of silence is established in the workplace, there are undesirable outcomes for both employees and the employer.  For example, one study “described ways that silence damages employee engagement, relationships, deadlines, [and] budgets” (Maxfield, 2016, p. 4). Without open communication, the workplace becomes problematic in a number of ways.

First, employees become estranged from their workplaces and become disengaged. Maria Vakola and Dimitris Bouradas (2005) correlated the culture of silence to poor job satisfaction and less organizational commitment (p. 441). Further, findings indicated “the strongest predictor of organizational commitment is communication opportunities … [because] openness in communication channels, trust and sharing information and knowledge may all enhance a sense of belonging and identification with the organization” (Vakola & Bouradas, 2005, p. 452). This suggests the supervisor’s attitude to feedback from subordinates therefore plays a significant role in organizational commitment. In fact, the study found “if a supervisor supports free exchange of ideas, handles conflict well, pays attention to his/her employees, they feel more satisfied with their job” (Vakola & Bouradas, 2005, p. 452). Employee disengagement increases absenteeism or lost time, impairs productivity, and adds to turnover. 

A culture of silence impacts relationships within a workplace and causes disruption and conflict. In such a setting, workers “do not confront rude, abrasive, defensive, and disrespectful colleagues” (Maxfield, 2016, p. 3). Maxfield (2016) described workers fail to “confront harsh language, backbiting, bullying, [or] harassment,” prefer “withholding information,” and are resistant to “feedback and input” (Maxfield, 2016, p. 3). Parker (2014) stated “organizational communication research has provided evidence…making the case that bullying is an organizational problem, and not tied to the pathology of a few bad employees” (p. 169). Working with others is a critical element to your work process and the culture of silence does not allow for constructive and respectful interpersonal relationships to flourish.

Another way a culture of silence generates problematic workplaces is by instilling fear. Parker (2014) explained, “In fear-based organizations, employees are so concerned with avoiding blame and humiliation that they cannot help the organization, even when they have the skills to do so” (p. 172). Maxfield (2016) explained a “failure to speak up when proposals or procedures are riddled with inaccuracies or faulty thinking” manifest “strategic missteps” in the workplace (p. 3). These missteps lead to chaos such as uncertain roles, responsibilities, specifications, or timelines (Maxfield, 2016, p. 4). Fear of retribution “makes asking for clarification feel risky” (Maxfield, 2016, p. 4). It is unsurprising to learn that fear bears on the actions and efforts of the employee. According to Bogosian (2011), “Employees who use silence as a response mechanism to a leader’s egregious actions are suffering emotionally and physically… and expend a great deal of energy trying to stay emotionally safe” (p. 138). Further, Bogosian (2011) concluded “group conformity create[s] a perception of threat that elicits silence as a safety response” (p. 119). That is to say, as more people are silent the harder it is for anyone to speak up.

Ending the Silence: Combatting the Culture through your Union

Research provides insight about the conditions that exist contributing to the culture of silence, but also provide insight about what workers don’t have agency over. Simply put, workers do not decide on who management/supervision is. They do not decide on their backgrounds, their diversity, nor their length of tenure. As a worker, you do not get to pick your direct supervision and how they react and perceive the world. Nor do workers decide communication channels, nor decision making structures, nor organizational hierarchy. Yet, these decisions directly impact the worker. So what can workers do to change the culture of silence?  Luckily for us, we belong to a union. According to academics Avgar, Boris, Bruno & Chung (2018), “Most scholars and practitioners see the role of unions in securing and providing workplace voice as central to their very reason of being” (p. 211). The following discusses how your union can transform the culture of silence through both collective voice and through member voice.

Let us examine the process of providing members with voice – the grievance system, but first it is important to discuss informal dispute resolution. During the employment relationship, disagreements and disputes are bound to happen from time to time, however there is “no requirement to move directly to the formal grievance procedure to settle the problem” (Sanderson, 2013, p. 7). Many times, a dispute can be settled through dialogue and informal talks. This option can be useful when confronting colleagues on bullying and harassment behaviours.  Sanderson (2013) recognized resolutions through the non-formal processes “can be even more important in healing or improving communications and relationships…[and] will make the relationship more resilient to future disagreements and disputes” (p. 7). This approach is effective in giving direct voice to the workers involved (Sanderson, 2013, p. 7). CSU 52 attempts to facilitate this type of resolution wherever appropriate and assists the member through the process. A member can call the office and speak to a Labour Relations Officer about this option before committing to filing a formal grievance. 

When an informal process is not appropriate or yields less than satisfactory results, union members have the option of filing a formal grievance. Using the formal grievance process is a more indirect, yet sometimes appropriate, mechanism for providing voice to workers. Because the union is the party to the collective agreement, it is the union who has “carriage rights” of the grievance (Sanderson, 2013, p. 9). Therefore, the grievor (worker) is represented by the union through the process. Labour legislation commands the union “act in good faith, reasonably consider the merits of the grievance, and enforce the collective agreement rights of the grievor” (Sanderson, 2013, p. 9). CSU 52 has nine professional Labour Relations Officers who are skilled in interpreting the collective agreement, are knowledgeable on the procedure, and experienced in presenting and framing grievances throughout the process up to and including arbitration. To be successful, complaints investigations must be thorough and fair. A grievor must provide all the specific information required and commit to ongoing and thorough communications with their representative. It is also important to be familiar with the pertinent provisions and the grievance procedure outlined in the collective bargaining agreement. Providing voice through a formal grievance procedure not only pertains to individuals but also groups of workers and to challenge employer policies. One of the core functions of the unionized grievance system is to provide union members with institutionalized access to voice (Avgar, 2018, p. 211). 

The “institutionalized” mechanism of the grievance procedure provides voice to workers from an independent third party perspective. This evens the playing field of power and authority between the workers and their employer. Brad Goertz, one of CSU 52’s Labour Relations Officers, stated, “In the grievance process, I approach the employer as an equal party. It creates a space that eliminates the subordinate/supervisor relationship. In a grievance meeting, the employee and the employer are meeting as equals.” As mentioned, many workers don’t speak up for fear of repercussions. Critically, any retaliation or retribution that arises from a member exercising their rights to a dispute resolution mechanism is a violation of the law as an unfair labour practice. Some practical examples are: belittling or intimidating a worker; threatening a loss of potential career advancement or other benefits; withdrawing status or offers of status; or disciplinary action for being a witness. Lanny Chudyk, President of CSU 52, vows to “take employers to task” for any and all unfair labour practices of this sort against a member who merely exercises their rights to access the grievance procedure. The independence of the union to pursue fairness and uphold the rights of workers is an important feature of the formal grievance procedure when providing a mechanism for the voice of workers.

Other union related activities are also mechanisms for employee voice but operate on a collective rather than an individual basis. First, many workplaces have labour-management committees.  This setting brings union and management representatives together to discuss workplace issues not normally included in a collective bargaining agreement. This is a tool between the parties that allows for two-way communication and to cooperatively resolve mutual problems and concerns. One of the major factors that contributes to the successful implementation of a labour-management committee is a respected leader and role model on the team (Miller, 1991, p. 221). If that describes you, CSU 52 vigorously supports you in pursuing this leadership role. Any member in this role has the support of the professional Labour Relations Officers and access to relevant training and education. 

Second, and the most obvious collective voice mechanism, is the process of collective bargaining and negotiations. One way unions provide the voice of workers is by bargaining for provisions that have surfaced from disagreements and disputes. Union negotiators attempt to bargain for provisions that solve common problems. In truth, that has historically provided for many of the common provisions like seniority rights or sick leave. CSU 52 members are encouraged to participate in the collective bargaining surveys and voice their concerns and opinions. Taking part in the process ensures the bargaining team has an accurate representation of the membership to take to the table. Similarly, once a collective bargaining agreement has been ratified, unions work diligently to ensure contract enforcement. Again, CSU 52 members are encouraged to frequently speak to their Shop Stewards about what is happening in the workplace so the union can monitor for compliance. This ensures that providing for workers’ voices through collective bargaining has meaning and clout.

Third, unions bring collective voice to workers through advocacy and activism. There are many ways unions achieve this; ranging from demonstrations and rallies to political action and lobbying. Sometimes union members work in concert with non-profit organizations to bring about progressive changes in the lives of working people. An excellent local example that CSU 52 has supported is the Labour Community Advocate Program offered through the United Way of the Alberta Capital Region. This program offers “an avenue for union members to help their brothers and sisters who have job related or personal problems” (United Way of the Alberta Capital Region, 2017-2018). Oftentimes, unions join labour councils or other coalitions to strengthen the position of workers and focus on worker’s issues. Sometimes these affiliations are formal and sometimes they are informal. For example, although CSU 52 is not officially an affiliate of the Alberta Federation of Labour, this union worked in concert to lobby the Government of Alberta for critical changes to the Local Authorities Pension Plan of great concern to the membership. More officially, CSU 52 is a member of the Coalition of Edmonton Civic Unions. This coalition applies important pressure on common employers for the benefit of members both at the bargaining tables and in the workplaces. Finally, when a union represents civic workers, political advocacy is not a leisure activity but a necessity. Applying political pressure by mobilizing the membership can have significant impact on the choices council members and other politicians make. All these activities are important components for setting the overall context from within which our employers operate. CSU 52 strongly encourages all members to attend meetings, read the newsletters, and get involved. There are a variety of opportunities to offer your skills and talents for the collective good. More importantly, by getting involved you are exercising your own voice while helping to amplify the collective voice of all union members.

Conclusion

We have looked at the culture of silence, how it commonly manifests in the workplace, and the general implications of the chilling effect on the workplace. We have also examined how this culture of silence damages the workplace from increased absenteeism, disengagement, and bullying and harassment. We have concluded that the culture of silence creates a common perception among workers that their voices do not matter, that there is too much risk, and that nothing will change anyway.

However, we have also learned there are ways union members can resist the culture of silence and actively engage their voice. By using informal dialogue or the formal grievance procedure, individual workers can oppose the culture of silence to bring about meaningful resolution to workplace issues. By working as a collective, we can advocate for each other, even the playing field, and bargain effectively for improvements for the membership. By working with community and other labour organizations, we can help shape the social and political climate our employers operate within. By being union, we are responsible for securing and providing workplace voice as central to our very being. 

Please do not hesitate to contact Brandi Thorne for further information or for further discussion.

Brandi Thorne
Member Engager/Organizer
Civic Service Union 52
780-784-2670
brandi.thorne@csu52.org

References

Al-Busaidi, A. (2014). Toward a Model of Organizational Muted Dissent: Construct Definition, Dimensions, Measurement, and Validatioin. Ohio.

Avgar, A. B. (2018). Worker Voice and Union Revitalization: The Role of Contract Enforcement at SEIU. Labor Studies Journal, 43(3), 209-233. doi: https://0-doi-org.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/10.1177/0160449X18756739

Bogosian, R. (2011). Engaging organizational voice: A phenomenological study of employees’ lived experiences of silence in work group settings. Retrieved from Retrieved from http://0-search.proquest.com.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/docview/915732721?accountid=8408

Godard, J. (2011). Industrial Relations, the Economy, and Society (4th ed. ed.). Concord, Ontario: Captus Press.

Maxfield, D. (2016, December 7). How a Culture of Silence Eats Away at Your Company. Harvard Business Review, 2-5.

Miller, R. W. (1991). Critical Factors in the Successful Development of an Area Labor-Management Committee. Employee Responsibilities & Rights Journal, 4(3), 215-230.

Morrison, E. W., & Milliken, F. J. (2000, October). Organizational silence: A barrier to change and development in a pluralistic world. Academy of Management. The Academy of Management Review, 25(4), 706-725.

Parker, K. A. (2014). The Workplace Bully: The Ultimate Silencer. Journal of Organizational Culture, Communications and Conflict,, 18(1), 169-185.

Platt, J., & Saundry, R. (2017, August). Factors Influencing Employee Willingness to use Voice Mechanisms. Journal of Research Studies in Business and Management, 3.

Sanderson, Q. &. (2013). Labour Arbitrations and All That (4th ed. ed.). Toronto, Ontario: Thomson Reuters.

United Way of the Alberta Capital Region. (2017-2018). Labour Partnership. Retrieved November 16, 2018, from United Way Alberta Capital Region: https://www.myunitedway.ca/labour/

Vakola, M., & Bouradas, D. (2005). Antecedents and consequences of organisational silence: an empirical investigation. Employee Relations, 27(4/5), 441-458.


  1. What about other culture of silence issues? My supervisor gives me and others the silent treatment, often for days at a time. My supervisor supervises so few staff that it would be obvious if i complained though so I feel I have no recourse no matter which way I choose (formal complaint versus union).

    • Hello Anon – Ignoring and/or excluding someone is a form of bullying in the workplace. I think your first step is to document the occasions this happens and particularly how it impacts you (eg: your ability to do your work). Once you have established through the evidence that a pattern of bullying behaviour is occurring, I would then speak to a Labour Relations Officer to discuss your options at that time. Remember, there is no requirement to file a formal grievance, but if you decide to follow through with that option, you will be protected from retaliation.

  2. I think this is happening in a lot of areas, And i think it would be nice for the union to have a check in meeting with members of each work area sometimes it’s easier for people to speak up when others in a room speak up first. I wish there was a way, but I understand this would be difficult. I know our area is working in an environment of fear and silence right now.

    • Hello Andi – I am in the process of scheduling “Lunch and Learns” throughout the bargaining units for 2019 for exactly this purpose. If this is something you and your colleagues would like to happen in your workplace, please speak to your shop steward about organizing one with me. Thanks

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