Topic: Employee Silence and Upward Communication

Author(s), Title and Publication

Milliken, F. J., Morrison, E. W., & Hewlin, P. F. (2003). An Exploratory Study of Employee Silence: Issues that Employees Don’t Communicate Upward and Why. Journal of Management Studies, 40(6), 1453-1476.


Research shows that employees often feel uncomfortable speaking to their bosses about organizational problems or issues. This study explored the types of issues that employees are reluctant to raise and why employees sometimes decide to remain silent rather than voice concerns. The researchers interviewed 40 full time employees who work in diverse industries and have held their current position for an average of four years.

Being silent about work issues or problems is very common; 85% of respondents said they had been in situations where they felt unable to raise an issue to a supervisor even though they felt the issue was important. The researchers identified eight types of “silence” issues: 1.) concerns about a colleague’s or supervisor’s competence, 2.) problems with organizational processes, performance, or suggestions for improvement, 3.) concerns about pay or pay equity, 4.) disagreement with company policies or decisions, 5.) personal career issues, 6.) ethical or fairness issues, 7.) harassment or abuse, and 8.) conflict with a co-worker. The most frequently mentioned reason for remaining silent was the fear of being viewed or labeled negatively, and, as a consequence, damaging valued relationships. Other reasons for silence included: feelings of futility, fear of retaliation/punishment, concerns about negative impact on others, individual characteristics, organizational characteristics, and a poor relationship with a supervisor. This study also examined the “collective” aspect of employee silence and found that 74% of the respondents who said they felt uncomfortable about raising issues reported that other employees who were aware of the issue also felt uncomfortable speaking about it.  Findings from this qualitative study should be tested with a larger employee population.

Implications for Practice

To promote employees’ voices, practitioners and organizational leaders can 1) help create a workplace where employees feel safe to voice, 2) convince employees that the organization truly wants to hear about issues as employees experience them, 3) fight against the tendency for hierarchies to impede the upward transfer of information about problems, 4) recognize how natural silence is when viewed from the perspective of the employee, and 5) eliminate employees’ concerns that they will be labeled negatively if they speak up.

Location of Article

The article is available online at:

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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