Scripture tells us to obey and submit to our “masters.” Assuming this applies to our bosses, does it mean I shouldn’t push back on bad ideas from management? Should I never “ask forgiveness rather than permission” on activities I suspect my boss will disagree with—if I suspect the outcome will be preferable to him or her? And along those same lines of knowing when to speak up and when to be quiet, where’s the line between water-cooler discussions that constructively critique company goals and activities, and harmful chatter Christians should avoid?
Every day in our workplaces we’re 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’re probably familiar with biblical passages demanding respect for employers (“masters” in Eph. 6 and Col. 3), as well as warnings about gossip and unwholesome communication (Eph. 4).
Challenges arise when we’re faced with ethical dilemmas concerning our speech, particularly when it concerns our bosses and fellow employees. Leaving aside obvious insults and overt rebellion, and friendly joking and celebrations, how do we discern when to be silent and when to speak?
Here are seven insights that can help us wisely listen and speak in our places of work.
- Are we unreflectively reacting or wisely responding? When we restrain our tongues and pause to consider the situation, our words will be more carefully chosen (Prov. 10:10; James 3).
- Friendly banter must be distinguished from ungodly gossip. “What a colorful outfit!” must not give way to “What a peacock!” Motive, word selection, and tone all contribute to joy or sarcasm (Prov. 12:14).
- Critical thinking about issues is different than judgmentalism toward persons. For example, “I think there may be a better way to craft the budget” is quite distinct from “Accounting is full of visionless fools.” The former allows debate toward wisdom; the latter alienates departments and persons (Prov. 10:32).
- When differing with our bosses on matters of importance, the shared mission must be the focus of our critiques. Finding the common starting point moves the conversation away from opinions and toward solutions for the good of the organization.
- 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.” This is acceptable confidence. “We all know he is only a candidate because his friend is the CEO. He is an empty suit.” Even if true, speaking such words poisons the community and cheapens godly aspirations (Prov. 11:3, 27).
- If we have been unfairly targeted by peers, subordinates, or authority figures, staying with the facts, using non-judgmental words, and documenting carefully will all help us fight for justice. When we defend ourselves well, we are also advocating for others who could be subject to the same unethical treatment (Dan. 1–6).
- Before saying anything critical about a fellow worker or a boss, have we spoken to them? Jesus’s admonitions in Matthew 5 and 18 help us here: we should make several attempts to convey concerns or divergent thinking privately before bringing our petition to higher authority. If it comes to that, good records of conversations will be essential if we must go over some heads (Prov. 12:22; 13:15).
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.