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How Your Coworkers’ Morals Can Help You Do the Right Thing

Symbols, Strong Relationships With Bosses Can Inspire Employees to Speak Up About Problems, Research Finds

By Carrie Handwerker

Illustration of a flashlight shining on a compass

What makes employees more likely or less likely to speak up about harmful practices behaviors and incidents in the workplace? A UMD management and organization professor and colleagues found that colleagues' behavior plays a big role.

Illustration by Shutterstock

Not everyone feels comfortable speaking up about wrongdoing and problems they see in the workplace. For employees reluctant to bear unwelcome news, two things can help—having a strong relationship with the boss or seeing other employees putting their own morals on display, according to new research from a University of Maryland.

Debra L. Shapiro, the Clarice Smith Professor of Management and Organization at the Robert H, Smith School of Business, worked with Salar Mesdaghinia of Eastern Michigan University and Robert Eisenberger of the University of Houston to understand what makes employees more likely or less likely to speak up about harmful practices behaviors and incidents in the workplace using their so-called prohibitive voice. They recently published their findings in the Journal of Business Ethics.

“Prohibitive voice doesn’t have to be about calling attention to a law violation of some kind; instead, it can be about any act in the organization that seems to be causing harm”—either to others or to the organization itself, Shapiro said. “It might regard inefficiencies or coordination problems that, if left unreported or unfixed, seem likely to harm the organization’s performance, reputation, safety, etc.”

But the benefits of prohibitive voice are absent in organizations whose employees fear being ostracized, harshly evaluated or retaliated against by coworkers or supervisors.

“Given the moral necessity and organizational benefits of prohibitive voice, it behooves organizations to understand what variables enhance versus weaken employees’ likelihood of voicing the problems they see,” the researchers wrote.

Shapiro and her co-authors predicted that prohibitive voice would probably be more frequently used by employees who have a strong internal moral compass, or “internal moral identity,” as well as a strong outward manifestation of this—clothes, books and organizational affiliations reflective of their internalized morals.

Shapiro and her co-authors surveyed 134 employees and their supervisors working in the Southwestern United States at a hospital, chosen because “errors in those settings can be deadly,” Shapiro said.

As predicted by Shapiro and her co-authors, employees with a stronger internal moral identity tended to more frequently use prohibitive voice, said Shapiro; this tendency was even stronger when employees also had a higher-quality relationship with their supervisor. But even employees with a strong moral compass were hesitant to speak up about problems when they didn’t have a good relationship with their supervisor.

Shapiro and her co-authors found the compensatory relationship they predicted: Employees with low moral identity tended to more frequently speak up about problems at work when they belonged to workgroups whose members engaged in more moral symbolization.

“You can’t see people’s morals; these become visible—literally—only if work colleagues display them,” Shapiro said. “Seeing people’s morals displayed—more so than working with people who might be internally highly moral—apparently acts like a contagion: Moral displays apparently ignite moral courage, even from those from whom you might least expect this.”

And compared to direct requests for moral behavior, symbols are more subtle, less risky and less resistance-provoking, wrote the researchers. “These features make moral symbolism appropriate for nudging others in the direction of moral behavior without using formal authority, as occurs, for example, when employees want to influence superiors and peers.”

Shapiro and her co-authors suggested that organizations that want employees to use prohibitive voice do things to heighten employees’ moral identity—for example, by permitting and legitimizing expressions of moral traits at work. This could mean role-modeling moral actions by becoming involved in community volunteerism or fundraising opportunities, or by displaying photographs, artwork, awards or other artifacts that convey  moral messages throughout the organization—ideally not messages that offend others in a shared workspace, Shapiro added.

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