One similarity between the employers of choice I feature in Road to Respect is that they all empower employees to speak up, to raise issues, to talk about problems and ask for help. Speaking up is a cultural norm that promotes organizational success.

Unfortunately, the cultural norm of speaking up is the exception rather than the rule. In most workplaces, employees routinely make the choice to put up and shut up. In cases of disrespectful behavior like harassment and bullying, a first incident typically turns into a pattern, one that has dire consequences for the individuals involved and their workplace. Productivity drops, absenteeism rises, teamwork and service delivery degenerate.

Research shows that individuals on the receiving end of disrespect at work spend up to 50% of their time on the job dealing with the effects of the disrespectful behavior.

New ideas, creativity and innovation are stifled by the fear that disrespect spawns. Math may not be my strong suit, but it is fairly obvious that if employees are spending almost half their time focused on something other than the job that they are being paid to do, that is a serious business problem.

To prevent this outcome, employees must be empowered to speak up, to give respectful feedback when they have concerns, problems or are experiencing disrespectful behavior at work. In a respectful workplace culture, speaking up is the status quo, “the way it is around here.”

To support clients interested in developing this norm I offer a presentation called Speak Up Speak Out: Personal Power and Respect in the Workplace, designed to equip employees to be able to express themselves respectfully at work. While of course most of us know how to communicate, very few of us know how to communicate effectively and respectfully, particularly in a conflict situation. We talk about the reasons we don’t speak up: cultural norms, fear, power and the communication skill gap. I share some simple communication models which provide a framework to allow employees to speak up with respect.

After reviewing the models I always ask participants what they think of them. More often that I would care to remember, someone inevitably says that while the models seem great, they don’t know if they would use them. When I ask why not I hear a variation of “I hate confrontation.”

What I interpret that to mean is that confrontation, rather than conversation, is the cultural norm in their workplace. Their experience is that giving feedback, speaking up, means a confrontation. And let’s face it, most of us will go to great lengths to avoid confrontation. As a result, issues that are interfering with an individual’s ability to do their job well, to achieve their full potential and contribute to the success of the business are not being dealt with. That silence is slowly killing any chance for top employer status.

Companies looking to emulate the success of employers of choice must create workplace cultures where speaking up becomes a cultural norm. To respond to market demands and the ever increasing pace of change which is the new organizational reality, companies need to have adaptable, responsive cultures, where employees are empowered and able to speak up and speak out to those they work with as well as those they report to.

A foundation of respectful conversation builds cohesive and productive teams and businesses.

It promotes creativity and continuous improvement while ensuring that disrespectful behaviors are not going unreported and bleeding away productivity and profitability. To avoid the dreaded confrontation, conversation – the willingness to listen, consider divergent perspectives, give feedback and engage in respectful dialogue with others should become the norm for all employees at work.

What is the experience of employees in your workplace when they speak up? Is the norm conversation or confrontation? Are you willing to risk not knowing the answer to that question?