The Power of “Ordinary Workers” Applying their Core Beliefs
by Kent Johnson, J.D., Senior Corporate Advisor, Religious Freedom & Business Foundation
Part of the blog series, Authenticity & Connection
As the world spirals deeper into cynicism, divisiveness and distrust, many are wondering: “I’m just an ordinary worker; down in the org chart; what can I do about it?
You can do a lot.
It only takes a handful of courageous employees to exert a significant positive impact on a company’s culture. We’ve seen this play out in company after company… large and small. In the end, what really carries the day is the heart and soul of the people at the “grassroots” – the ordinary workers.
We compliance lawyers wonder: Why didn’t somebody at Volkswagen raise serious questions early on about the “cheater devices” being installed to fraudulently defeat diesel emissions tests? How did that blatant cheating continue over 9 years without someone – at some level – blowing the whistle? If but one employee – over all those years – had visibly pressed the obvious question, “What is this device FOR?” VW could’ve avoided billions in reparations and fines, huge reputational damage and untold havoc on many employees’ lives.
In a similar vein, many questions should be asked. How is it possible for a “boss” to get away with denigrating women in the workplace, day after day, month after month? How can a manufacturer gloss over a known safety risk? How can a company persist in muzzling a whole class of employees that yearns to do the right thing?…
Understandably, the main focus in many of these cases is on the behaviors and words (or silence) of the few leaders at the top. They’re the ones considered responsible for company culture. The high profile “big fish” is the most attractive target for prosecution and blame. Makes sense. But I’d submit (from experience) that the heart of an organization rests largely with its rank-and-file. You.
Often, top managers are less able than the common worker to truly impact the culture of the company, especially on “softer” ideological topics like ethics and inclusion. People expect bosses to give “lip service” to ethical considerations. Rightly or mistakenly, workers often think “that’s what the top brass need to say to cover themselves; but the only thing they really care about is achieving measurable short term profit goals; and they want us to get there, whatever it takes.” Especially in today’s cynical culture, people are apt to wonder: Did our leader do the “right” thing because she really believes it’s right, or just to avoid the penalty if she got caught?
Authenticity of company leaders is certainly important. Those in power should be among the first to speak out. But in today’s cynical workplace, leaders’ credibility is often suspect. My point is that the entire company’s authentic commitment to the company’s stated values and principles is fundamentally put to the test when an “ordinary worker” courageously points out behavior that contradicts those values. Here are two of the ways this scenario can play out:
— If the worker is publicly commended or rewarded for raising the issue, a culture of integrity can be strengthened. This scenario demonstrates that workers’ integrity and caring are valued. (Even then, skeptics may think management was forced against its will to commend the whistleblower).
— If a legitimate concern is ignored and the worker is demoted or fired for raising it, the objection can have an even more powerful positive impact. Others are inspired by the courageous ordinary worker. The fact that the stakes are high adds weight to the words and actions of the ordinary worker. The risk authenticates the worker’s heartfelt commitment to the core principles. When authentic commitment is evident, it’s transformative.
Of course, day-to-day work issues aren’t always so clearly “right” or “wrong.” It often turns out, after respectful and diligent follow up, that what appeared to be a violation of the company’s core values has a legitimate explanation. Wherever it’s feasible to do so, that explanation should be clearly explained to all those involved, so they aren’t crushed under the misimpression that there may have been a cover-up.
In each of these situations, the courage and virtuous intent of an ordinary worker is a powerful influence for institutional change of heart. Sincere, heart-driven integrity is infectious. Over time, the brave and respectful questions from “ordinary workers” make truly illicit behavior very uncomfortable. In all but the most unscrupulously-run companies, it only takes a few vocal “ordinary workers” for integrity to prevail. And when this works, workers feel personally affirmed, encouraged and fully engaged.
Some readers are saying, “You’re urging those without power to take significant risks with their careers!” To that, I say… well… yes, I am. But by so doing, I’m not letting management off the hook. When you take these bold steps, you’ll present opportunities for management to demonstrate their genuine commitment as well. In many, many cases, you’ll find that integrity is appreciated at the top. Most significantly in your life, you’ll be acting in accord with your own core personal values. That speaks volumes. That inspires. That transforms entire cultures.
We compliance lawyers often argue (of course we do) over what’s the best training to influence people to “do the right thing even when nobody’s looking.” To my thinking, the best training encourages workers to act according to the core values and beliefs that they personally aspire to live out. Frankly, for many, it’s demoralizing to work in corporate cultures that frown on authentic and open discussion of how worker’s heartfelt principles relate to their work.
So, here’s the “call to action”:
— If you’re in a position to influence company policy, please consider joining the growing number of major companies that have embraced religious diversity and inclusion. Encourage your people (those who may be willing to do so) to talk with one another about their core values and beliefs, and where they’re drawn from. Sincerely encourage them to follow through.
— If you’re an “ordinary worker,” please don’t just wait for your “bosses” to do something. If you’re not already doing so, start thinking about and talking with colleagues who are willing to listen, about how your core values and beliefs impact your work. Encourage them, and learn from them. Stand up. And follow through in accordance with your beliefs.
The “ordinary worker” MATTERS. You can do this. You can do a lot.