Talking At Work

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about an order not to talk while working:

I work for a supermarket in Australia stocking shelves. The other day my manager tells my co-workers and me that we are no longer allowed to talk to each other while we work. As long as talking is not affecting productivity, is talking legally allowed? Usually we don’t even look at each other while we talk.

Signed, Mummed

Dear Mummed:

As our disclaimer states, we do not answer legal questions. You can check with your Australian Department of Labor to learn if employee talk is legal. However, I don’t expect that there is a law saying you can’t talk while you work, and most likely the underlying issue is not a legal one. Rather your question suggests that the working relationship you have with your manager is not the most positive.¬† Apparently your manager does not trust those of you who do the stocking. Probably the manager thinks your coworkers and you are not seriously applying yourselves to the job. Or might your manager feel the pressure to get more out of you and/or might he fear that if his superior sees those of you under his charge are talking too much, he might be judged as not doing his/her job?

Possibly your manager has an “I’m boss and you are here to be bossed” personality, but probably it is more than that. In short, the no-talk rule is in keeping with your organizational culture or subculture. A no-talk culture springs from an all work and no play ethic. And that is not all bad. The trait of industriousness deserves to be honored. It is a can-do high performance attitude. Probably your manager has learned in his youth or somewhere along his career path that work is not a social matter. After all when hired you were hired to stock shelves; you are not paid to talk. Right? That is the message of the no-talk rule.Is it a good rule? You assert that it is unnecessary because your attention is to stocking shelves and that you rarely ever have eye contact while talking. That probably is true. Yet your manager has the impression that talk interferes with stocking. Should you try to change his/her mind? Saying the no-talk rule is not legal might do that; yet would it solve your manager’s perception that you and your coworkers were really doing your jobs?

Probably not. Rather telling your manager that it is legal to talk while you stock, if that were true, would be seen as adversarial, as you against your him.So must you bite your tongues and only point your nose toward stocking? Should you whistle while you work and be happy with that? Or should you find a way around the no-talk rule such as using sign language or a tapping code, as has been used by prisoners in separate cells? There must be a better way! I suggest a more positive approach.Is what you want is just to talk while working? No. I suggest that what your coworkers and you really want is a productive and work-friendly climate–one that gets the job done efficiently and effectively, one that has is not boring, one in which the time passes quickly, one that allows a bit of fun, one in which there is mutual trust and respect between your manager and you, and one that is a career path and more than just a job! You probably have not thought about your job and boss/bossed situation that way, but I challenge you to think beyond the immediate no-talk rule.

You want your workplace to be profitable. If it is not, your jobs are at risk. If you want to help shape your workplace to be both profitable and employee-friendly, you need to think big and act accordingly. That means you need to meet with your manager in a purposeful way. In such a meeting, you need to inquire why he/she has laid down a no-talk rule and to listen respectfully to the explanation given. In response, what your manager wants to hear is that you who stock shelves are committed to do good work and do it effectively; that you are indeed committed to the success of your company. Then you need to present another way to think about what such a rule implies and how it creates a mistrusting adversarial relationship. Your manager probably has not considered the way you see the no-talk rule and has not understood why some social chitchat helps the day go by and that a no-talk rule makes you feel like robots.You might propose a trial period in which you and your coworkers pledge to limit the talk and to not allow it to distract from stocking shelves. Your manager might react to that positively or if he responds negatively, you could ask that this proposal at least be given some consideration. Whatever the outcome of your meeting, you might help build trust by suggesting ways you could do your work more effectively, cutting wasted time, wasted supplies, and proposing ideas that your manager might see are signs of your commitment. Thinking big is empathic and positive. It is summed up by my signature to most questions that come our way: Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS. And isn’t that what you and your manager want; you want to work together as a team and to have the deep satisfaction that you are doing good work, work that matters.

William Gorden