Paul Butler | Speaking up at work 

Paul Butler: Going the Extra Mile

I was standing in my favorite bagel store recently, waiting for my order to be processed, and struck up a conversation with a stranger also waiting for hers. She started bemoaning how much she felt the area was going downhill. 

As a lover of my hometown, I asked her to tell me more. She went on to explain that, during her morning walks, she regularly comes across drug paraphernalia on the paseos. “Can you believe it?” she asked. “We have to step around the needles and ensure our little pooch doesn’t stand on them.” 

My fellow Santa Claritan went on to say how she was also disgusted by the increasing amount of graffiti she notices on the bridges. It was at this point that I politely interrupted her to ask if she had spoken up about what she saw — had she ever called the police or graffiti hotline?  

I gave an example where we suspected illegal drug use behind our house — we called the Sheriff’s Department, and within 15 minutes, they were there and dealt with the issue. I gave another example of being at a local park where we noticed some graffiti on the curbstone. We called the city’s hotline, and in a flash, the crew arrived and steam-blasted that graffiti out of existence. 

Before she could respond, her order arrived, and she hurried out of the store, calling back over her shoulder, “We don’t care about reporting what we see — we’re moving to Nashville when my husband retires.” 

It got me thinking about how many neighborhoods have gone to ruin because people simply didn’t speak up. The relevant authorities have a limited amount of personnel resources, so we as neighbors can be the additional hands and feet to speak up about what we see — ideally, also rolling up our sleeves as volunteers when we can. 

Relating this principle to the workplace, it set me thinking about how many organizations have ruinous cultures simply because no one speaks up about issues that should have been dealt with by the relevant authorities — namely, the organization’s leadership.  

Consider the number of organizations that have fallen from grace and, as a result, went out of existence because people didn’t speak up about what they saw. Think: Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen, Global Crossing, and Tyco International, to name just a few. Internal investigations often validated this fact: Many saw something, but few people said something. 

From my observation, there’s nothing that can spread more quickly across an organization than negativity, gossiping and backbiting if not addressed by leadership. These are the graffiti of the workplace, as they’re really tags of much deeper issues.  

Likewise, if direct or indirect fraud is allowed to continue within an organization, for example, due to pressure to achieve results at all costs, morale will drop. Why? Well, as human beings, we innately know what is right and what is wrong. Few people are willing to speak up, and so heads go down instead. 

We recently consulted with an organization that had a very disengaged workforce. It was sad to see that only 24% of the employee population were willing to speak up during a survey process we offered — even though we provided various platforms on how such feedback could be provided and assured employees of absolute confidentiality. How disheartening it must be for someone to spend so many of their waking hours working at a place where the culture is sub-optimal but they won’t speak up to influence positive change — usually for fear of retribution, or resignation that nothing will change. 

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Be the change you want to see in the world” — so whether we’re talking about our place of work or the place we call home, let’s all commit to speak up and, ideally, roll up our sleeves to help improve matters where we can. It’s people who create neighborhoods, and likewise, it’s people who create workplace cultures —good can conquer over bad if enough people are willing to positively impact change. 

If it doesn’t work out, I assume we could all move to Nashville as it sounds like it really is awesome there. 

Paul Butler is a Santa Clarita resident and a client partner with Newleaf Training and Development of Valencia ( For questions or comments, email Butler at [email protected]. 

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