When and How to Speak Up About Issues at Work

In our day-to-day lives, it’s simple to decipher right from wrong. The lines might become blurred in a professional environment, though. Perhaps you’ve noticed something fishy — misreported information or a colleague who’s skipping out on work earlier than he’s supposed to. At what point do you have to point out wrongs to your higher-ups?

It’s tough to say, and we might default to remaining quiet instead of stirring the pot. But there are some wrongs you cannot and should not ignore. Here’s all you need to know about when to speak up at work.

Don’t Let Yourself Rationalise

One sign you’ve witnessed something worth reporting is rationalising it in your mind. “It wasn’t that bad,” you might tell yourself, or “It’s not my responsibility to worry about this.” But sometimes these thoughts are just a way to sugarcoat our experiences. Perhaps what you’ve seen is worth reporting, despite what you’re telling yourself.

To that end, we tend to use this self-defense mechanism because confrontation is an uncomfortable experience. Rather than dealing with the problem, we rationalise to avoid it. But bringing up an issue at work doesn’t have to be as horrible as you envision it, nor will there be lingering hard feelings between you and the person in question.

A Small Action Could Indicate a Bigger Issue

In business, a small action could have massive implications. For instance, someone misreporting numbers might seem like a small error, but it could lead to a multimillion-dollar fraud suit. That’s obviously a rare case, but it’s worth considering as you weigh whether to speak up.

Many kinds of fraud can be linked to business activity. For instance, a doctor might be guilty of Medicare fraud if they order unnecessary treatments to get an insurance payout. Financial fraud, on the other hand, risks people’s pensions or otherwise damages the free market, to the detriment of all other stockholders.

Think about this when you weigh whether or not to speak up. The small action you’ve witnessed could indicate a more significant problem that could cost the company money and jobs.

Speak Directly to the Person First

It might seem your best option is to speak to your boss or someone even higher up when you see something wrong happening at work. However, you might misunderstand someone’s actions, and a conversation could be enough to clear the air. For instance, perhaps you’ve been misinterpreting a person’s intentions or actions from afar — noting this could inspire them to change their behavior and avoid any further issue.

Just make sure you approach the conversation in the right way. Always do it in person, rather than over email. And, if you feel like you might get flustered and forget your point mid-chat, write down your points beforehand, so the problem — and your intention — are both clear.

Ask Questions to Get Answers

No matter how much evidence you’ve gathered, don’t present your suspicions as statements. The person might take this as accusatory, causing them to clam up or become defensive. That might lead them to escalate the issue and make it a problem for you, no matter how good your intentions were from the start.

So, be sure to pose all your observations as questions. “Can you help me understand why you do things this way?” or a similar inquiry will start a chat without casting blame. Listen for the same rationalisations you might’ve made before reporting the issue in the first place. If your colleague has excuses that don’t sit right, you might have to take things to your boss for closer consideration.

Know When to Escalate the Issue

As previously mentioned, you might not be satisfied with the conversation you conducted with your colleague. And, when you reach that point in your discussion, it’s best to cut it off right then. Then, you’ll need to speak to your boss about what to do next.

Again, make sure your tone with your manager isn’t accusatory. Note the action or pattern you’ve mentioned and see how they react. If they’re not concerned, you’ll have to decide whether you want to take the problem to your boss’ boss, for example. If no one’s interested in escalating the issue further, you can rest easy knowing you did the best you could in the situation.

There’s No One-Size-Fits-All Solution

As previously mentioned, all this is up to your interpretation. You’ll be the one to see the questionable action, and you’ll measure the pros and cons of speaking up. You’ll sit down to talk with your colleague and, potentially, with your boss, too. In doing so, you could save your company from bigger problems down the line.

Of course, that starts with your intuition. There’s no hard line between right and wrong, so the best piece of advice of all is to follow your instinct. You’ve grown up knowing the difference between right and wrong, so trust how you feel and go from there.

Sarah Landrum

Sarah Landrum recently graduated from Penn State with degrees in Marketing and PR. Now, she's a freelance writer and career blogger sharing advice on navigating the work world and achieving happiness and success in your career. You can find her tweeting on her coffee breaks @SarahLandrum