Every day in our workplaces we are surrounded by dissonant conversations, from practical scheduling to salacious gossip, from helpful inquiries to overt subversion of authority by ambitious colleagues. As followers of Jesus, we are probably familiar with biblical passages calling for respect to our employers (“masters” in Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3), and warnings about gossip and unwholesome communication (Ephesians 4). Challenges arise when we are faced with ethical dilemmas concerning our speech, particularly when it concerns our bosses and fellow employees. Leaving aside obvious insults and overt rebellion, friendly joking and celebrations, how do we discern when to be silent and when to speak? Here are eight insights that help us wisely listen and speak in our places of work.
- For all our communication: are we unreflectively reacting or wisely responding? Put simply, when we restrain our tongues and pause to consider the situation, our words will be more carefully chosen (Proverbs 10:10; James 3).
- Before saying anything critical about a fellow-worker or a boss, have we spoken to them? Jesus’ admonitions in Matthew 5 and 18 help us here: every attempt should be made to make peace before something blows up in public (Proverbs 10:19).
- Critical thinking about issues is different than being judgmental toward a person. For example, “I think there may be a better way to craft the budget” is quite distinct from, “Accounting is full of fools with no vision.” The former allows debate toward wisdom; the latter alienates departments and persons (Proverbs 10:32).
- Ambition directed toward kingdom ends is healthy. Desiring promotion for fruitful work is not sinful. But political maneuvering at the expense of another’s character or reputation is a serious transgression. “I really want the Director’s chair. I have some ideas that will move us forward and I think I am ready” is acceptable confidence. “We all know he is only a candidate because his friend is the CEO. He is an empty suit.” Even if the latter has some truth, speaking these words poisons the community and cheapens godly aspirations (Proverbs 11:3, 27).
- Friendly banter must be distinguished from ungodly gossip. “What a colorful outfit!” must not give way to, “What a peacock!” Again, motive, selection of words, and the tone all contribute to joy or sarcasm (Proverbs 12:14).
- When differing with our bosses on matters of importance, the shared mission must be the focus of our critiques. Finding the common starting point places the conversation away from opinions and toward solutions for the good of the organization. Keeping insight #2 in mind, we should make several attempts to convey concerns or divergent thinking privately before bringing our petition to higher authority. Good records of conversations will be essential if we must go over their heads (Proverbs 12:22; 13:15).
- Instead of gossiping with peers, we should bring concerns to higher authority only after other avenues have been exhausted. The time frame could be days or months, depending on the issues at hand. Again, our motives must be unselfish and the mission in focus (Proverbs 14:30).
- If we have been unfairly targeted by peers, subordinates, or authority figures, staying with the facts, non-judgmental words, and excellent documentation will all help us fight for justice. When we defend ourselves well, we are also advocating for others that could be subject to the same unethical treatment (Daniel 1-6).
As we navigate our workplaces, the Holy Spirit will help us pause and pray, reflect and respond, instead of reacting and regretting our words. We may not win every battle, but we can grow in holy love and inner peace.