Businesses can lose $25,000 or more in productivity costs when employees stay silent about work issues.
If you see something, say something — or it could cost your company tens of thousands.
Employees who keep mum about a problem, process or strategy that just isn’t working out — often because they’re worried about being labeled a “complainer” or fear retaliation — can cost companies $25,000 or more in productivity costs, according to a recent report by leadership training company VitalSmarts.
The study asked more than 792 professionals about their willingness to report problems or concerns that arise on the job, such as spotting unethical business practices, bullying or intimidating behavior, or noticing a product or service mistake. It also asked them to estimate what staying silent ends up costing the company — and it turns out the lag time between identifying and articulating problems, aka the “accountability gap,” is pretty costly: If just three days or fewer pass between someone identifying a problem and reporting it, about $5,000 are wasted. And when that accountability gap runs five days or more, workers estimate that more than $25,000 are lost.
Why is silence so costly? “When an issue is not addressed within five days, the odds that it will ever be addressed drops dramatically. As a result, many of the problems in this category are problems that are never addressed or solved,” David Maxfield, the VitalSmarts VP of Research, told Moneyish in an email. “Once you look at it that way, the $25,000 figure seems pretty small.”
For example, one anonymous employee told Maxfield’s team that the president of his or her operating company got drunk at his retirement party — and confessed his staff had realized two years earlier that the hydro project they were building would fail. “I asked him why he hadn’t rung any warning bells. He said he had too much respect for me,” the worker said. “We lost $200 million on that project, and I damn near lost my job because of it.”
Most workers in the survey blamed their workplace culture for making them too scared to speak up. Almost half (45%) didn’t think any of their colleagues would support them, leaving them socially stranded; 46% expected retaliation for reporting something; and more than a third (37%) were afraid that speaking up would brand them as a complainer, hurting their careers.
Many employees also don’t want to step on their colleagues’ toes; in fact, nearly 64% internalize their frustrations with coworkers, and 52% hesitate to speak up when a coworker is taking improper shortcuts, showing poor attention to detail or handing in incomplete work. More than half (55%) are uncomfortable asserting that someone or a group has made a bad strategic choice; 49% take a week to say something when a policy decision creates consequences; and 47% hold off on sharing concerns or ideas that might improve business because it would encroach on somebody else’s turf.
Companies can address this by normalizing accountability practices so that workers won’t feel like speaking up will cost them their jobs or reputations, the report noted. That can include establishing safe channels, like a company hotline, to encourage people to report issues without fear of retribution. And company leaders and employees should undergo training to improve their dialogue skills so that they become more comfortable discussing problems and solutions head-on, rather than avoiding any potential confrontations.
“Companies need to do two basic things: listen more and speak up faster,” Maxfield said.
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