Can a New Employee Speak Up?

Home Forums Careers Can a New Employee Speak Up?

This topic contains 24 replies, has 15 voices, and was last updated by  Steve Radick 8 years, 7 months ago.

  • Author
  • #95923

    Great questions (and responses) posed to/by Tom Fox of the Partnership for Public Service in “The Federal Coach” column on Washington Post. How would you respond?

    Q: I am a GS-11 who has only worked in the federal government for a couple of years. I am worried that it will hurt my career if I speak up, because I don’t want to be seen as a renegade.

    A: I love this question. When did speaking up in meetings come to be seen as rogue behavior? What did you plan on saying anyhow?

    Actually, I hear this concern frequently from the federal employees. My advice would be that you pick those moments when you have something truly powerful to say, and be certain to back-up any statements with facts, anecdotes and experience. Most senior leaders I have come across are just waiting for their people to speak up. So long as you are saying something valuable, you will not be seen as a renegade. You will be seen as a leader.

  • #95971

    Steve Radick

    This is SO frustrating for me to read – has this employee tried to speak up before? I’ve come across this numerous times at my company too (and even wrote a post about it) and many more times than not, the organization’s leaders are not only happy to see people speak up, but want to encourage it. Leaders (for the most part) don’t want a bunch of yes men – they want to be able to have conversations, debates, and free thought.

    My advice?
    – It’s far worse to NOT speak up and be told that you should be more vocal than to be told to ease off a bit.
    – Don’t just identify problems. Identify potential solutions as well.
    – Leaders don’t just want a list of options. They want your recommendation as well.
    – Out of earshot, out of mind. If you’re not speaking up, it’s not like you’re in the meeting at all.

    A leader would MUCH rather have to pull back an overeager employee than try to figure out a way to get someone interested.

  • #95969

    Amanda Blount

    Remember – Speaking up is different from whinning.

  • #95967

    Bill Bott

    if you don’t speak up – how will we know what to tease you about?

    You’re not alone in this issue… a good friend of mine always says the culture of an organization starts with the welcome mat… HR. Look at what the federal HR department says when you apply – fill this out our way, sit and wait, don’t call us – we may call you, do these things to get promoted, lose these rights if you do these…. It’s no wonder employees feel rocking the boat is bad for their career – we beat it into them even before we hire them.

  • #95965

    Amanda Blount

    So my idea of afternoon naps are not going to fly HUH? LOL 😉

  • #95963

    Bill Bott

    Be bold Amanda… there are plenty of studies to support the siesta!

  • #95961

    Marcie Stone

    I agree that it’s important to speak up in an organization. The key, however, may be in explaining your thoughts/concerns to the right person who may be able to initiate positive action. Always remember your audience and intent, and it’s especially important to be humble – you may be a new employee with great ideas, but there is much to be said for experience also.

  • #95959

    Trisha Castranio

    It may be uncomfortable but you should always speak up if you have something to say. As was previously recommended have the facts straight and be able to provide solutions (that is usually the next question from leadership).Suggesting change or questioning current models is sometimes tough but it keeps people moving forward. Go for it.

  • #95957

    Great thoughts, Steve. This seems like it’s easier/more encourage in private industry since it’s more of a performance-based culture and advancing is tied to making your success and savvy visible – though I’ll grant that organizational politics are similar wherever your work.

    By the same token, it may be easier in government to voice your opinion since government has such a reputation for being a place where it’s ‘harder to get fired.’ In some ways, there are MORE protections for a government employee to stick his/her neck out and still have a job, eh? What makes risk-taking tough in government may not be the internal risk, but the external risk of that idea being implemented and it failing in front of taxpayers who are awfully fickle.


  • #95955

    True, Amanda. Should be constructive and productive. Speaking up to say only what’s wrong without solid solutions gets you pegged as a complainer…and it’s hard to get out of a perception box once you’re put in it, eh?

  • #95953

    Good point, Bill. I had a job there were issues with HR in the scheduling of the interview. Many of the broader cultural issues at that organization became obvious once I was hired…and I soon learned that that those early problems in HR were symptoms of a systemic disease.

  • #95951

    It’s true that the only constant is change…and if people don’t/can’t have the freedom to make suggestions for change in their organization, they will do what they can to change their circumstances…which often means looking for a new job! And the energy that they give to the process of finding something new could have been harnessed to make their current environment a better place…better for continuity and much less costly for an organization.

  • #95949

    Christopher Sommers

    In theory one should always be able to speak up.

    Only you know your agency’s culture.

    My 2 cents.

    1. Go with a solution in hand for what you foresee as an opportunity for improvement.
    2. It’s not what you say, but how you say it.

  • #95947


    As an HR professional, we often get blamed for things. I think there is something to be said for a Dilbert cartoon I was once given – HR: “I don’t make the rules, I just apply them with a helpless and defeated attitude” – I found it to have a little degree of truth to it, as oftentimes HR has to make things happen, caught in the middle trying to juggle managment and employee views and find a way to still make things happen.

    Employees should definately speak up. Management is more open than employees believe!

  • #95945

    Jeff Self

    Its imperative that you speak up. Managers who have made a career out of the government (some would say they’ve been institutionalized), have become set in their ways or have learned only from their managers who spent a career in government. They don’t know any different ways. For many of them, their only knowledge from the outside is through salespeople.

    It is our responsibility as employees to inform them about different ways to do things, perhaps better and more cost effective ways. If they don’t listen, and often they won’t, for various reasons, then at least you know you tried.

    Most managers will be glad you spoke out. They want to hear different opinions. In the end, it falls on them though. They have to decide if your opinions on something are better than the “safe” choice. And many times they’ll still settle for the “safe” choice even if its more costly.

  • #95943

    Carol Davison

    However, I recommend that you be politically savvy and consider the consequences of speaking up before doing so. Have you thoroughly researched the consequences of your suggestion? Did you met with others for their input before the meeting? Are you trying to sacrifice the boss’s sacred cow and in a culture where that is not accepted? Are you considered an asset? Are your competitors/enemies in the room? If you are seen as a straight talking results deliverer your suggestions MAY be welcome. If not, others might object to your positive view of apple pie and motherhood.

  • #95941

    Nalini Padmanabhan

    Absolutely speak up! As a fellow equivalent to a GS-9 who has been in the federal government less than a year, I was also nervous at first. But once I started voicing my opinion more often, I was invited to get involved in more projects, was actually asked for my thoughts and recommendations, and have been explicitly praised for participating. It shows that you pay attention (which is all too easy not to do at meetings!) and care.

  • #95939

    Brandon Jubar

    I’m a new Fed (only 4 months now) but I have over 16 years experience in private industry, so I found out rather quickly that there is definitely a lot of room for improvement here! One way that I’ve approached issues without sounding like a rebel or a know-it-all is to ask questions. Lots of questions. I get clarification on everything, and I never accept “because that’s the way we do it” as a final answer.

    What I’ve found is that when people have to clearly and logically explain something that is clearly illogical, they get extremely uncomfortable… and they start “speaking up” for me. Often they simply resort to complaining, but that opens the door for me to ask them, “What should be changed, and how can we go about getting the change implemented?”

  • #95937

    Bill Bott

    Tricia – never meant to imply it was HR people… simply the rules and systems that are culture setting – A lot of HR people go WAY out of their way to help you navigate within the system! Hope I didn’t offend

  • #95935

    Doubledown Tandino

    I don’t work in politics or in government….
    It’s a shame that this is even a question in your line of work.
    It also proves why the government functions how it does.
    …. people running our country, fearful of speaking up; fearful that by speaking their mind it may hurt their own career…. that’s a shame.

  • #95933

    Hey Tandino – I don’t think it’s a problem only for government. Sounds like you’re a freelancer, so have less trouble with this issue…but people in every sector have trouble speaking up…office politics are present everywhere, eh?

  • #95931


    Bill – No worries! I didn’t take it that way. Unfortunately HR is typically the first contact a job candidate has with an organization, and HR has to enforce the policies & procedures that are in place even when they don’t necessarily agree – and have offered up alternatives which for whatever reason were rejected by their superiors.

  • #95929

    Srinidhi Boray

    As a contractor frequently when I speak up I have to hazard loosing my job. I have also been told often directly do not speak nor offer any suggestions however useful they are, just comply. Just work as per the guidelines even when there are none.

    Speaking in government, is like putting foot into mouth and hazarding to loose home. I am fighting my mortgage at this time. Irony of life, I study system transformation and also its failure 🙂

  • #95927

    Srinidhi Boray

    My job as Enterprise Architect following “Clinger Cohen Act” and such entails creating plans and documenting them such that they promote transparency and accountability in the investment plans.

    I am threatened for pursing logical and rational plans and rewarded for creating obfuscation.

    Is anyone out there wiling to contest this?

  • #95925

    Nina Adrianna

    Well GS-11, maybe you are a renegade. Sometimes speaking up is rogue behaviour (if you’re challenging the status quo fundamentally). Definition of rogue: “no longer obedient, belonging, or accepted and hence not controllable or answerable; deviating, renegade.”

    Andrew–a new leader can sometimes be viewed as rogue by those who they challenge. Speaking up is often about challenging the status quo–to some degree or another. Emerging leaders often challenge the status quo, because they seek to improve things. How can one affect change if they are completely obedient, controlled and answerable to the status quo?

    GS-11, are you loyal to your bosses, your department, the government as a whole, citizens, or to some moral ideal? Chances are, you can’t be loyal to all of these, as there is bound to be discrepancy between the values and goals within each of those subsets. Therefore, if you speak up for something you believe in, and what you’re saying fundamentally challenges the culture or process, then you’re a rogue in somebody’s books. People aren’t always going to accept what you say.

    For example, if you’re speaking up for transparency and open government, and you’re doing it frequently, that could be seen as subservient behaviour to those individuals who might stand to lose control or who’ll need to change their modus operandi as we move towards gov20. In speaking up, you might be helping push change towards a higher ideal. So, you’ll become a leader, but you’ll be a little bit rogue, too.

    Key–find other people who are speaking up about the same things. Support one another.

You must be logged in to reply to this topic.