Understanding the employee’s voice

Hemant Kakkar’s work is so relevant to business his ideas have sparked media discussion that’s unusual for someone early in an academic career. Researching the role employees play in pushing for change within their organizations and in society, Hemant discusses barriers to speaking out and how employers can encourage open dialogue.

Dean Bill Boulding interviews Hemant Kakkar on Instagram

Hemant Kakkar, Assistant Professor of Management and Organization

“I mainly talk about our personal life and work life but there are, again, different parts of ourselves. Someone could be a father, a brother as well as a son and also working somewhere and a faculty member. We have all those elements of self. Psychologically, this is one of the ways we work, we compartmentalize. We bring that part of ourselves, which is more relevant, to the current situation. We keep those identities, as I might like to call it, separate. But when there is a lot of social unrest and we don't know what's going on in the environment and there are things which are affecting our personal life, our social identities tend to cross around that time. We can't really compartmentalize, saying, ‘OK, this is me, who is working, who is a worker, this is me, who is a father.’”


“That is when our personal and our work life collide. And that’s where I feel people when they go to work, they want to voice about certain things, about the things that they see are wrong in our environment. And especially during the times like these, when we are seeing racism or we are seeing unfairness on our streets. It just becomes a more pertinent issue, it’s more on top of our minds. So when we go to work, we want to talk about those things because it's not getting away and that's why I think giving employees that forum, that space to talk about some of these social issues, some of these things are important, especially in times like these.”


“People can just take the status quo for granted, which a lot of times we see is happening and people are okay with it. But I think, as we are seeing, there is a movement and a lot of people are asking questions about what we can do. Especially in these kinds of seismic changes, we want to do something about it. What happens is when we don't speak up and these things are definitely an issue, I will go back to some of the work by political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, and she calls it we create these spirals of silence. Where she is coming from is again this idea of, if you want to speak something and it goes against the status quo, it goes against the common opinion, which everyone holds up, it’s a deviant opinion. It's something people don't want to hear. So you tend to stay silent because you worry about the consequences. You worry about how people will see you. And what happens is, even if you are right, if you worry about those consequences, you don't end up saying and pointing out those right things. When you don’t say it, there is someone else who also thinks that whatever we are seeing is kind of wrong. They take a cue from you. They also don’t say that thing. And then it sets up these informational cascades or I might also call it, lack of informational cascades, in the organizations, in the groups, in the teams, that no one is really pointing out and speaking about things that really matter. And this basically propagates the status quo. That’s why she calls it spirals of silence.”


“A good example of it, which we kind of all know is this Asch experiment, in which there were actors who came and basically said something which was not true, and then they asked the real participants, ‘what do you think is the answer?’ And they will go with the actors, five people who said something which was not true in front of them. And this is this idea of conformity, we conform to the status quo. But if one person was going to say, ‘these five guys are wrong’ then the other person might pick it up and we see these things happening in national experiments. There was just one person who needed to speak up. And it set out and it removed those effects of conformity and that pressure on others. That’s the idea of why we should be speaking up.”


“What you are saying is, even if you have something to say, even if we have a platform to say about something, even if there are conditions favorable for us to speak up, why we still don’t end up speaking up? There are a few psychological barriers as I would like to call it, which holds us back. And one of them is this idea of psychological standing, this idea of legitimacy. What it basically means is, ‘I don't look like someone who has been aggrieved.’ Let's crystalize it in the current sense. We know a person from the African-American community is harmed. Should I, as someone who does not look like an African-American, who does not belong to that community, should I be speaking up and pointing out those racial injustices? What holds people back is they think if I say something, it's kind of virtue signaling. I'm not coming across as genuine. Maybe people will not see it as a legitimate thing. So this kind of legitimacy license blocks us from sometimes speaking up. And my whole take on that is if you have something to speak up, if you are in a position to speak up, if you have a space to speak up, then you are coming from this position of privilege, as I would say. And in positions of privilege, if we see injustices, if we see something wrong, then we should definitely speak up. We have to overcome ourselves. We have to stop worrying about ‘us’ when talking about these things because, essentially, we're worried about ‘us’ and that's why we're not speaking. So we have to work on that. That’s all it is.”


“At this time, first for us, as faculty and as business school professors, to think about these things more meaningfully and have them as part of our curriculum. So I know we are doing that as part of our Fuqua community. And as far as students, I think it is time as long as it is part of Fuqua community. We teach them, we talk about some of these things. It helps to talk about these unjust issues and I think one more reason why it might be a good time to come to business school, and I will go back to research. There is research by Emily Bianchi from Emory University. And she basically looked at what happens to those people who join business school during times of financial crisis, during times of unemployment and also often take jobs in those difficult situations. And what she finds is that she tracked these people over a period of a few years. And she found that students that graduated during these times of uncertainty or unemployment, they tend to be more satisfied with their job. Irrespective of the role that they got, they tend to stay longer in their job. As we know, if you are more satisfied with where you are in your life, you will also be more progressive. You will contribute more to social causes. I think that's another way to think about why it might be a good idea to join business school around this time.”


Quick Facts

Area: Management and Organization

Elective Course: Foundations of Organizational Behavior

Researches: Status and Social Hierarchies, Helping and Voice in Organizations, Ethics

Street Cred:

Research draws on social, psychological and evolutionary theories of status to examine judgments and behaviors of individuals and groups within social hierarchies

Studies focus on employees’ tendency to participate in both positive and negative deviant behavior

Published in The Harvard Business Review, The Academy of Management Journal, The National Academy of Sciences and Nature Human Behavior


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