The bounds of silence: There are times when keeping quiet is simply not a sound business strategy

There are times when keeping quiet is simply not a sound business strategy

The times we are living in have been described by former U.S. president George H. W. Bush as “kinder and gentler.” Isn't it strange, then, that in this digital age, where e-mails often supplant oral conversations, a benign word–silence–can have such profound impact?

There are good silences, yes, but there are also anything-but-gentle silences that sting, bruise and hurt, cause disappointment and even evoke feelings of despair. We've all experienced them: the unreturned phone calls, the deafening silence of otherwise assertive people when a colleague is bullied, the silent treatment instead of accolades when a major goal has been achieved.

Many people spend most of their day at work, so it's not surprising that several life experiences, both positive and negative, occur there. The workplace is where some individuals expect their needs for identity, approval and friendship to be met. Consequently, they may feel isolated and marginalized because they are not greeted with a good morning, never invited to lunch or excluded from decision-making. Such oversights can reveal the true nature of an organizational culture. Is it healthy or toxic? Do people feel engaged? Does the climate permit full expression of ideas without fear–or is the atmosphere so stifling that people are silenced?

A client of mine worked for a non-profit organization. A new executive director was hired, but the employees were not informed. New work schedules were established and new operational rules were implemented without anyone receiving notice or explanation. Managers who were in the know and who were aware of how unhappy their people were, did not advocate on their behalf. People felt disenfranchised. There was a loss of trust.

An occupational therapist who worked at a publicly funded hospital once told me she felt she had to quit to maintain her dignity when budgetary considerations resulted in such ineffective workload redistribution that some of her co-workers believed they could no longer manage their jobs. Complaints were silenced by termination notices. People stopped talking. They simply looked for other jobs.

In another case, a person working at a university asked his boss to consider reclassifying his position to correct historical inequities, which would enable him to receive a raise. The boss promised to look into it. He never replied. No raise, no reason. Or what about the situation where a star employee expected he would receive a promotion but someone else on his team got it? The employee was taken off partner track and no one wanted to be the one to tell him. Colleagues stopped asking him to participate in big deals; they didn't invite him for drinks after work. They made little eye contact and engaged him in few conversations at the coffee machine.

Sometimes there can be changes in the workplace dynamic or the way someone is treated that are perceived by the recipient or witnessed by third parties, although words are not spoken. Bullying behaviour can be both covert and silent–an insidious silence, difficult to prove, not because it is not real, but because it is sensed. It is like convincing someone that you feel hot, when no one can see any physical evidence to substantiate it. And in some of these cases, the foundation can be laid for a wrongful-dismissal action based on constructive termination.

I have been referring to situations that occur in the “real” workplace. I use this term to distinguish between workplaces that are physical, where people report to work, where they see their co-workers and can have face-to-face interactions with them, and virtual workplaces. In virtual workplaces, people may work in a “community,” but they “show up at work” by logging on. That type of workplace exists as a concept and by agreement, but not necessarily in a physical location.

In the virtual workplace, people have different expectations of their co-workers. They may not have expectations of participating in social events or water cooler gossip. They (thankfully) may never hear the bullying brays of co-workers (although e-mail language can indeed be offensive and rude). Even where people do not have a traditional workplace, however, there should be rules regarding conduct, such as delays in communications, or the manners or tone of communications. Unreturned e-mails may be innocent, maybe not. Some of us have lousy memories or wayward spam filters.

What if you have knowledge of a co-worker's wrongdoing and you don't know what to do with this information and whether or not you should speak out? In such cases, there can be an obligation to break silence, either because of rules or regulations, the nature of the relationship, or simply because it is the right thing to do.

So what should you do if you are the recipient of stressful workplace silence?

1. Don't suffer silently. If there is someone at work in authority who should be listening, tell them. They cannot help you if they don't have knowledge of the circumstances. Your exclusion may have been inadvertent, and once there is awareness, the individuals involved may change their behaviours. Sometimes people don't intend to reject; they are just slow decision makers. That does not diminish dissatisfactory conduct or excuse bad manners, but knowing the reasons may help you feel better.

2. If you need to blow the whistle, ensure the person you divulge to is indeed a person you trust.

3. In situations where changes have occurred that have made carrying out your responsibilities untenable, discuss this with your manager. If strategies to overcome the negative effects of this conduct are not forthcoming, seek outside assistance, be it emotional and/or legal. Implosion is not good for your health.

4. If your boss said he would look into rewriting your job description or has promised to get back to you on a matter of importance to your career and fails to respond, remind him again. Ask for clarification of his intent. If you still receive no answers, seek advice from other departments.

Companies that communicate transparently, facilitating a frequent flow of information, enable their employees to know the strategy and purpose of a decision and to understand the role they need to play. Many employees have experienced anger, confusion and fear where changes have occurred in their workplaces and they have not received prior, clear communications regarding these decisions. Examples include new hirings, firings, changes of the game rules, or new software programs requiring fresh skills be learned. “When information is withheld for any reason,” says Willa Litvack, a Calgary-based psychologist, “for instance, where the boss fears delivering information because its impact would be disturbing, the employees cannot make meaning of their experience and move forward.”

Another situation where silence can be inappropriate and can cause discomfort and confusion involves job candidates. Andres Silberstein, a trained architect and the manager of a U.S. engineering company in Chile, once told me about his experience when he applied for a position with a particular firm. He and the interviewer had enjoyed a lengthy professional relationship, and had collaborated on many projects. After reaching an agreement regarding starting date and salary range, Andres had a strong sense that he would get the position, not merely because he was abundantly qualified (in addition to his professional qualifications, he is fluent in at least four languages, and can comfortably work in diverse cultures), but because he had a good rapport with his prospective employer. Instead, his follow-up telephone messages and e-mails met confusing silence.

There is a moral duty to say no. If you have asked someone to apply for a job, to provide references, answer questionnaires and attend interviews, then you have an obligation to tell them that they did not get the job. They have a right to know. You have a right to say no, but how will they know that you mean no, if you do not expressly tell them? Even a little bit of feedback would surely be appreciated.

People are busy, sure, but how much time does a small act of kindness take? Why do others have to write your script, fill in the blanks, second-guess, and question their own competence because you do not demonstrate basic courtesy? Bad behaviour flags your organization's culture as being potentially toxic, and singles you out as a contributor to that toxicity. It tarnishes your brand. Yes, silence can speak volumes.

So what can you do to show respect?

– Find the courage to show grace and come clean. Call a job candidate and thank them for their time. As well, give a brief explanation why they weren't hired.

– A thoughtful letter will suffice if you cannot make that difficult phone call. You don't have to defend your position, but you should be forthright.

A situation in which you have actively sought applications is distinguishable from cases where people randomly apply for jobs. Some companies just don't have the time to acknowledge every unsolicited resumé. If they can, it's a nice thing to do. Where they have invited potential candidates to submit applications and provide submissions, however, then responding in some fashion within a reasonable period of time is clearly appropriate. Some firms promise to return telephone messages within a 24-hour period. When such a promise is fulfilled, people feel validated.

Janice Davidge, director of human resources at CCL Industries, a Toronto-based global company that does custom manufacturing and makes labelling and packaging for well-known consumer products, is sensitive to the issue of people's feelings at work–and how it impacts on the company's brand. “Every 'spec' applicant for a position receives a letter advising them whether positions are available or not,” says Davidge, “and all those applicants who are interviewed, except those sent by placement agencies, are told the outcome of their interview.” I applaud this practice, as it honours every applicant and provides closure.

Another example of inappropriate silence involves the treatment of suppliers or customers by some large companies. The owner of a car sales, leasing and repair business shared with me his frustration with a representative of a car dealership. He tried to negotiate the purchase of a high-end vehicle on behalf of a client, but the rep would not return calls or e-mails promptly so that the deal could be made expeditiously. My contact vows he will never deal with this person again, and if he has to do business with that company, it will only be as a last resort.

I know how it feels to be treated to silence. I met with several people of a prominent beauty and wellness company for almost a year with the understanding that I was to develop seminars, group coaching and newsletter articles for them as part of a full-scale leadership initiative. After one meeting, the head of human resources instructed me to set aside a couple of days the following week to meet with the executive team, and to contact the vice-president's assistant to firm up times. After many unsuccessful attempts to reach an appropriate contact, an assistant called back and said there was no meeting arranged, but that the head of HR would call me to discuss “opportunities.” He didn't. A few more messages, followed up with e-mails, met more silence.

If something changed, why couldn't he tell me? Was he scared? Had he genuinely thought he could proceed, but a higher up had vetoed that decision? Why did he waste my time, leading me to believe a business relationship would ensue and then totally ignore me?

What do I think of that organization's culture now? It's neither beautiful nor well. As a consumer, I will not buy its products, nor will I recommend them to others.

Faced with a similar situation, what could you do differently?

– You should respect others' reasonable expectations. Ask yourself whether your conduct has caused someone to believe a story would unfold in a certain way. Do not encourage people to misinterpret your silence. If you know they will not be getting the anticipated result, do not waste more of their time.

– Show off your integrity. As former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani once put it, “Under-promise and over-deliver.” If you said you would do something, do it–and within a reasonable period of time. If you promised to call and did not, super-size your image: apologize.

Every person who works for an organization is an ambassador of brand who can poison it to the point of ruin or can embody all that is superb about it. People remember how you made them feel.

Another important example of silence involves the duty to step up to the plate and speak out. I coached a young woman whose manager had screamed at her in front of all her co-workers, thereby humiliating her. No one spoke out in her defence, although they saw and heard the harassment. Did her colleagues fear retribution or disciplinary action? It is not insubordinate to respectfully ask a boss not to shout. What was the cost of speaking out?

It is sad that people don't advocate on behalf of others often enough, especially in low-risk situations. Such intervention is difficult to learn and to apply judiciously. There is a need for protocols and paradigms that cover how best to respond in such situations.

People need allies who will not only verbally defend them where necessary, but will also praise their accomplishments. Extolling someone else's virtues makes you shine brighter. Courage and heart can both benefit from a vigorous workout.

Just listening and allowing others to speak shows compassion. Where speaking would be an unhelpful interference, I recommend a call for silence. You should remain silent where doing otherwise would be overstepping your authority or usurping someone else's. Businesses need to become listening organizations before being learning organizations. When silence is as thick as smog and no one is talking, you risk not hearing what you need to.

Martin Luther King once said, “We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” After silent reflection, was there anything worth saying? Get the message?