10.21.2020
Standing Up Against the “Shut Up and Work” Workplace
Forcing employees to pretend “external” events simply go away as so many work from home is not only disingenuous, it reflects the privilege many leaders have to avoid these issues entirely.

Late last month, Silicon Valley CEO Brian Armstrong re-emphasized his firm’s profits-first mission. In the company’s public blog, openness to debating causes was shot down, engagement on broader social issues was shunned, and activism through the company on fundamental issues that affect many employees was left to other organizations or individuals. Of course, the effect of prohibitions like this go much further as employees or prospective employees try to understand the practical day-to-day implications of what it all means—and of what happens if “lines” are crossed, unintentionally or otherwise. That may be why the company rapidly helped show employees the door if they wanted to get out.

Essentially telling a team to shut up and work in the name of profits is not a way to honor the dignity of people who are devoting hours each day to an organizational enterprise, or to meaningfully demonstrate the value of human decency, moral courage, and empathy as a leader. And a conscious choice to make such a statement now, in the middle of a pandemic when many people are isolated and unmoored by one existential crisis after another (especially in the Bay Area—the company’s home base—where wildfires, heatwaves, and lousy air quality have added extra layers of challenge), and at a time when an assault on social justice initiatives and workplace anti-bias efforts together with electoral uncertainty all create real pain and real fear in far too many employees, seems particularly tone deaf or reflective of the privilege to avoid these issues entirely. 

In our current normal, where lines between work and “rest of life” are nearly fully blurred, it is beyond ordinary human capacity to put “rest of life” stuff to the side. And we shouldn’t. The effects of electoral issues will shape our workplaces and the extent to which they are free from discrimination. Jarring “external” events will continue to affect communities that we care about or are a part of. Forcing employees to pretend those things didn’t happen or don’t affect workplace engagement is disingenuous—when the Pulse shooting occurred, should LGBTQ employees have been told to shut up and work? No. As wildfires continue to decimate the West Coast, should those whose neighbors or communities are suffering be told to shut up and work? No. When George Floyd was murdered and Breonna Taylor was gunned down (and on and on), should Black employees have been told to shut up and work? No, again. And the same for the many colleagues who care about and are allies to any of these groups.

Any organization with employee resource groups and dignity-and-respect or inclusion commitments knows that these external crises can create important, necessary opportunities for connectivity, understanding and shared humanity among colleagues—the folks employees spend a huge amount of time with each day. By allowing that, a release valve can be created that helps remove some of the weightiness, thereby allowing a less burdened focus on other workplace matters.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights emphasizes this through our newest program focused on workplace dignity. Rather than shutting employees down, we should instead honor the dignity of the people we work with, creating workplaces that allow identities to thrive, are psychologically safe for speaking up, and acknowledge and truly hear employee voices. We can call out leadership behaviors that would empathize with those sowing division, hatred, or discriminatory intent around such events or communities employees are a part of. There are plenty of ways to do this while also remaining on task with organizational goals and results—in fact, these matters also have real impact on and relevance to any diverse customer, client, or stakeholder base. Reducing behaviors that honor dignity and prioritize decency to divisive political acts is harmful and reflects a narrow stakeholder view that is out-of-step with other, persuasive thinking that acknowledges the crucial role that employee stakeholders play in a dignity-conscious organization.