Ombuds’ corner: Employee silence

Although around a hundred cases a year are reported to the Ombuds, several issues may still not be disclosed due to employee silence*. The deliberate withholding of concerns, escalating misunderstandings or genuine conflicts can impede the global process of learning and development of a better respectful organizational workplace environment, and prevent the detection and correction of acts violating the CERN Code of Conduct.


For the employee him/herself, such silence can lead to feelings of anger, resentment, helplessness and humiliation. These feelings will inevitably contaminate personal and interpersonal relations, and poison creativity and effectiveness.

Employee silence can be explained by many factors; sometimes it is connected to organizational forces. In their published paper*, authors Michael Knoll and Rolf van Dick found four forms of employee silence.

People may stay silent if they feel that their opinion is neither welcomed nor valued by their management. They have given up hope and no longer consider making the effort of speaking up to change the situation. They may fear the consequences for themselves and so do not speak to anyone, prefering to suffer in silence. Let us not disengage, let's continue to improve the interpersonal relations inside our Institution! Remember that the Ombuds will listen to you in a complete confidentiality and will only act with your strict authorisation! You will stay completely in charge of the process you may choose.

Silence can be pro-social. In this case, employees are afraid to harm the image of the Institution, so they tolerate inconveniences at work without grievances. Remember that conflicts are inevitable. They will always arise as they are part of the dynamics and energy of an Organization. It is much more important to face them and resolve them as early, before they escalate and involve many complicated aspects!

There is also the unfortunate possibility where people withhold information to achieve an advantage for themselves. Such an opportunistic attitude is highly counterproductive and in contradiction with the core values of our Organisation. In particular, it contradicts with demonstrating a high level of motivation and dedication to the Organization.

Remember that your job satisfaction and well-being is negatively related to such silent behaviours. Working in complete transparency is what is most beneficial to you, your colleagues and the Organization, by increasing collaborative efforts and agreeable partnership. Efficiency will then be guaranteed, as well as mutual respect and understanding.

Do not stay silent in your own corner: come and talk to the Ombuds, even just for a little chat. That may prevent you from feeling isolated or misunderstood. In his office, you can certainly speak up freely!

* “Do I Hear the Whistle…? A First Attempt to Measure Four Forms of Employee Silence and Their Correlates.” By Michael Knoll and Rolf van Dick, Journal of Business Ethics (2013) 113:349-362.

Contact the Ombuds Early!


by Vincent Vuillemin