The cost of speaking the truth

Speak the truth and the truth will set you free. That's exactly what happened to Stephen after he dared to speak out at work. The IT consultant was working for a media company when cracks in the project began to surface. After he chose to highlight the problems he was shown the door.

“The project was in a shambles and everyone was turning a blind eye to the elephant in the room. The managers and executive officers were lying about impossible deadlines and deliverables. Other department heads knew that something was wrong, but kept quiet. It was like some mafia situation between the certain levels of management and the steering committee.”

Stephen adds that if he did not go along with what was being said his job was at risk.

At one meeting, he decided to speak out about the unrealistic deadlines, budget and progress.

“My manager was lying to the team and directors. Inwardly, I was frustrated until this manifested outwardly in a public setting with stakeholders. I told them what was really going on and we were not going to meet deadlines. Immediately following that meeting, one mafia member made sure that I was shown the exit door and my employment was terminated.”

Stephen regrets not leaving before the situation worsened, but he has no regret in speaking the truth.

“In fact the outcome was relief. No job is worth losing your dignity and integrity over.”

Stephen felt powerless to approach anyone in the company with authority. He dismisses any notion of going to the HR department.

“HR would not have supported me because the culture was endemic,” he says.


Henriette Rothschild, managing director of Hay Group Pacific, says it is critical for companies to encourage a culture of transparency to allow employees to speak up.

“When someone is afraid to speak out, it affects their working capacity. If you're not able to discuss issues, then this attitude erodes your thinking and working capabilities. Employers must engage people. One of the biggest disengagements is being treated badly,” says Rothschild.

She adds people cannot perform at their best when they're constantly watching their back. HR has a role to play and that is to work with the business to create a culture of engagement and not just to be an employer complaints department.

“HR will find the hot spots through engagement surveys and exit surveys. A good organisation will respond to these issues. They will act on the analysis they receive as the information is confidential and provides powerful data.”

Rothschild's recommendation to anyone in a situation where they cannot speak out is to raise the issue with the manager, unless the manager is the problem, then it must escalate to the next head.

“If they feel the environment is not safe, then leave. It's easy to say this when jobs are hard to find. But voting with your feet is often the best way to get the attention,” she says.

May, a business publishing contractor, also had a recent encounter with lack of transparency in the workplace.

“I was hoping to renew my contract at work following some big internal changes. I was asked what sort of role I would be interested in, given that the sands were shifting. I wrote a proposal on what I thought I brought to my position and what I felt I could add, including some suggested improvements.”

Instead of strengthening May's case the opposite happened.

“This seemed to cause a big kerfuffle among the managers who took my suggestions personally. A week later I was offered a very short and limited contract which I declined. In another firm, my suggestions may have been welcome, but not among the delicate egos I encountered here.”

Sociologist Dr Catriona Wallace from management consultancy Fifth Quadrant says there is a growing trend for more transparency in the workforce, and this is largely driven by younger employees.

“There is a generational shift in the workforce, particularly with younger employees. Gen Ys have been brought up with the values of authenticity, transparency and speaking up, so they expect to do this in business. A good employer will harness this, whereas an older, more traditional employee may be very uncomfortable. This leads to conflict,” she says

Traditional management theory comes from command and control model based on military model, adds Wallace. Essentially, individuals did as what they were told and this is old school.

“This model no longer really works. From our experience we believe the old model will break up in two years. Shared values and truth in business, along with having an ethical purpose are becoming more important as a business model,” she says.

If an employee is working in an area that is not true to their values, they'll disengage and leave.

“Take a calculated risk and leave. Eventually you will find people with shared values and you'll thrive.”

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