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Challenging workplace situations provide fodder for communication research

December 15, 2006

Jeffrey Kassing has built a research profile niche around workplace issues. For almost a decade, he has studied employee dissent and its varied facets. His work began with his dissertation in 1997 and since then Kassing has conducted 18 studies of some aspect of employee dissent.

According to Kassing, freedoms are reduced when one enters into a worker-employer scenario. He studies how those interactions play out. “Dissent happens when you try to put constraints on individuals,” he says. “We often don’t have the luxury of freedom of speech at the one place where we spend the most time.”

An associate professor of communication studies in the College of Human Services at ASU’s West campus, Kassing’s most recent research features an analysis of about 140 individuals who discussed circumvention, or dissention, by going around or above one’s supervisor. He found that although risky, going around one’s boss can be appropriate at times but can lead to supervisor-subordinate relational deterioration.

Kassing says he is surprised by the actions of supervisors and that unethical behavior is a frequent occurrence in the workplaces he studied. “Behaviors ranged from outright theft to sexual harassment,” he reports.

Given the numerous examples of unethical conduct by corporations, Kassing says dissent serves as an important corrective action in the workplace. Circumvention typically occurs when an employee’s supervisor is unwilling to consider his or her subordinates’ dissent.

Kassing’s findings can help organizations develop reporting policies that provide clear and open access to authorities above an employee’s immediate supervisor. “By doing so, organizations allow for employee input that many not otherwise come forward,” Kassing says. “In this way, employees can air concerns without jeopardizing their working relationships with their supervisors.”