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Overcoming Public-Employee Silence

Too many government workers don't think their organizations value their input. It's a challenge their leaders need to take seriously.

Woman with tape over her mouth.
"My department manager does not like differing opinions shared and tries to shut down any conversations of such."

"Over the years, we have been asked many times about ways to save money for the department and the city, but nothing ever changes."

"Nine times out of ten, my ideas are dismissed."

"We do have an opportunity to provide opinions but what's the repercussions? Most don't speak about their opinion because they know that it won't result in change."

These excerpts from interviews with employees of local governments -- a building inspector, a firefighter, a parking services representative and a housing maintenance technician -- illustrate what employee silence looks like, when workers intentionally withhold ideas for workplace improvements or keep their concerns to themselves. These employees have chosen not to speak up because nothing comes of their suggestions, they fear retribution or their thoughts are dismissed.

Employee silence means that potentially valuable information is not making it up the hierarchy for consideration. As a result, silence stifles innovation, dampens employee morale and hinders organizational effectiveness. The effects are particularly damaging for the delivery of high-quality public services with scarce taxpayer dollars.

How big a problem is employee silence for government? At the Local Government Workplaces Initiative at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we've been researching its extent and impact, and our findings are troubling. We surveyed 3,234 local-government employees over the past 18 months, and fully 50 percent of them told us that they sometimes do not speak up when they have ideas for improvement. The odds that these same employees were thinking about quitting were nearly four times that of vocal employees. So silence is a morale issue that affects workforce turnover.

How can governments at every level mitigate employee silence? Here is a framework for public administrators:

Want employee input. Really. The crucial first step is to examine your own attitudes. Not all managers want employee input. Some say they want it but really do not. The best public managers understand the value of employee input, work systematically to encourage input and have a plan for acting on that input. If you don't fall into this category, you will only demoralize your employees.

Create formal processes for employee input. Management by walking around is OK, but it's no substitute for formal processes that elicit and respond to employee input. Some examples include an employee forum, like the one created by the town of Chapel Hill, N.C., to provide regular feedback on workplaces issues, and an employee task force to address pay structures, like the one used by the city of Concord, N.C. Having formal processes in place can also reduce fears of retribution by creating a critical mass of employee voice.

Follow Up. When employees come to you with ideas or concerns, do the following:

  1. Thankfully acknowledge the idea, suggestion or concern.
  2. Outline the next steps (for example, "I will check this out with accounting").
  3. Put a timeframe on it ("You will hear back from me within the next two weeks").
  4. When you decide, let the employee know what the answer is. "Yes, great idea, thank you." Or "No, but here's why." Or "Not yet, let's revisit this in (specify the timeframe)."
Train supervisors in employee input. It is more common for supervisors to be trained in giving employees feedback rather than in receiving it. Such training could include an overview of basic employee input processes such as those described above, role playing on encouraging and responding to input, and an emphasis on the importance of careful language -- being encouraging rather than dismissive.

Overcoming employee silence is a crucial challenge for public organizations. Doing so is a matter of understanding the harms of silence, recognizing the benefits of employee input and having the will to improve your public-sector workplace.

A professor of public administration and government at the UNC School of Government
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