March 3, 2016 by

“While at work a few months ago,” a local businessperson once related to me, “I was with a couple of employees talking not about anything in particular, just chatting about random things.

One of the people brought up another co-worker’s sexuality (they were not present). This person was very vocal about their beliefs and disgust of homosexuality. I was uncomfortable with the comments being made. I picked up my coffee mug and said, ‘I have to get to work’ and left. But afterwards I felt guilty. Should I have done something differently?”

The uncomfortable situation concerned sexuality, but it could just as easily have been about a coworker’s race, religion, or economic status. Someone talks negatively about a co-worker and the words cut deep. We don’t agree, but remain silent. Then we chastise ourselves for our weakness. We hit ourselves. We are bad, bad, bad for not being stronger.

But then again, are we weak and bad? Or are we just smart? The workplace is about getting the job done. When is it our role to engage a person in what could easily become a shouting match about ethics?

When we believe in our gut that something is wrong but don’t speak out about it, we are “morally mute.” Notice that muteness itself can sometimes be a good thing. Biologists tell us that it is a survival mechanism. It is a technique mankind learned in order to protect ourselves from the prowling lions and tigers. The species that knows how to remain silent in the face of danger is the species that outlives others.

On the other hand, muteness can also be a downfall. If we don’t scream when we see a car is about to run into us, a distracted driver may miss a potentially lifesaving alert. Making our presence known and not being mute can also be a very good thing.

So when is moral muteness right or wrong? When should we remain silent, and when
should we speak up at work?

An answer to these questions comes from reflecting on our motivations. Moral muteness is wrong when it is a result of rationalization. If we are silent about our moral beliefs just because we want don’t want to rock the boat, we want to fit in, or we don’t want to mess up the team, then we are rationalizing. These rationalizations tend to arise because of fear, but it is always our role to protect each other from the oncoming car, so to speak. And we might be scared because we don’t have the tools to express our beliefs in a way that doesn’t end in a shouting match, or analogously, that doesn’t run both the driver and the pedestrian off the road.

Like most things in life, moral muteness is overcome with practice.

Some of the best firms in Omaha have initiatives for employees to practice their communication skills in role-playing ethical scenarios with colleagues they trust. I know of at least 16 organizations that do this, both for-profit and non-profit: Access Bank, Arbor Bank, Avenue Scholars, Centris Federal Credit Union, the Douglas County Treasurer’s office, General Service Bureau/Early Out, Heartland Family Service, Hayes & Associates, Kiewit, Mutual of Omaha, NECA, NEI Global Relocation, OPPD, Seldin Company, and SilverStone Group.

These firms deserve a shout-out because they recognize that employees who know how to overcome moral muteness become stronger as individuals. Their teams are made hardier, more resilient. And those are assets that go straight to the bottom line.

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