how to speak up as a group at work

I sometimes suggest that letter-writers who are concerned about a problem at work get a group of coworkers to all speak up about it together — because there’s strength in numbers and it can be harder to blow off a group than a single person. But I want to talk more about what that looks like.

The first question is how to get this group together in the first place. This doesn’t have to be a big formal thing where you’re sending memos and organizing clandestine meetings. Just talk to people and see what they think of whatever the issue is, and ask if they’d be willing to join you in asking for it to be reconsidered. For example:

You: “Hey, I’ve been thinking about this new request that we all have our tonsils out in order to cut down on sick days. It seems invasive and wrong to me, and I wondered what you thought of it.”
Coworker: “Yeah, I’m not happy about it either.”
You: “What do you think about several of us going to Jane as a group and pushing back on it? If a group of us spoke up about it, I think she’d take it seriously and we’d have a good chance of getting the policy changed.”
Coworker: “Yeah, I’d be up for that. But would it just be me and you?”
You: “Let me check with a few other people and we can see who else is up for it.”

From there, the group of you talk to your manager or HR or whoever the decision-maker is that you’re trying to influence. Do it in-person, though; this isn’t a memo thing or an email thing.

If you already have regular team meetings, it can make sense to bring it up there while everyone is present, and multiple people can easily chime in.

Or, depending on what the issue is, sometimes it makes more sense for multiple people to each bring it up individually with the manager. If you do that, you can be transparent about the fact that you’ve all talked. You don’t need to make it seem like it’s a coincidence that everyone’s raising it — it’s okay to say “I was talking this over with Jane and Bob and realized I think X.” You generally don’t want to speak for Jane and Bob, but it’s okay to acknowledge that you talked about it, and that that was part of developing your thinking on it.

For something more serious, you might say, “My sense is that a lot of us have concerns about this. Could we set a time to sit down as a group and talk it through?”

In general, though, I wouldn’t recommend having one spokesperson going and talking to the manager one-on-one on the group’s behalf. There might be a rare time when that makes sense, but most of the time it will be less effective. The manager is likely to wonder why a spokesperson was necessary, and how accurately other people’s viewpoints are being represented, and if the person is really speaking for everyone else they say they’re speaking for.

For the same reason, if you’re meeting with your manager (or HR, or whoever) as a group, avoid having one person do all the talking. You don’t want to create the impression that there’s one person who really cares and the rest are just there for moral support. You want multiple people participating in the conversation.

To make sure that happens, be very explicit ahead of time that that needs to happen. Otherwise you may launch in and figure that others will speak up too, but in reality they may sit there silently, figuring that you’ve got it covered. Ask people to agree ahead of time that they’re all going to actively participate so that it doesn’t end up looking they’re not as invested.

In the meeting itself, the basic framework you want is this:
* “We’re concerned about X.”
* “We’re hoping we can share our perspective with you. Here are our concerns.”
* “Given those concerns, can we change the way we’re doing this/can this be reconsidered/would you be willing to try Y instead?”
* “Thanks for hearing us out.”

You don’t want to use this approach for every concern that comes up at work, of course! In most cases, it will make more sense to talk to your manager one-on-one. But when something is a particularly big deal or affects a lot of people, or when your manager has a tendency to personalize disagreement, this is sometimes the most effective way to go.

{ 65 comments… read them below }

  1. Engineer Girl*

    Definately agree with the point about not doing all the talking. Otherwise you’ll be seen as the ringleader/instigater.

    1. Magenta Sky*

      But be careful to not go too far with it. Be organized – everybody babbling at once can’t say anything at all. And everyone repeating the same thing over and over is likely to produce a different reaction than what’s wanted.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Yes, this. Whenever I’ve done this, we all “game planned” what we would say, how we’d deal with scenario A v. B, etc. It was important for us to be ready, because otherwise someone would inevitably say something that undermined our primary purpose.

  2. Shadow*

    And once you get an answer or response, even if you don’t like it, you need to accept it. You can make your dissatisfaction known, but you really can’t continue to bring up the same complaints continually without taking a hit to your rep. Of course, if you’re complaining about something unsafe, illegal, or unethical then that doesn’t apply.

    1. Magenta Sky*

      If you’re complaining about something unsafe, illegal or unethical, if the boss doesn’t take it seriously, there are outside agencies that will. Sometimes, there’s no choice but to escalate.

    2. PersephoneUnderground*

      I’d say that’s correct to a point- don’t be too easily mollified by empty promises or reassurance that something isn’t that bad. You don’t want to turn it into a huge argument in the moment, but there’s a big gap between that and accepting whatever the decision is. You may need to have the meeting, get a response, leave and take time to consider the response, then go back as a group to follow up or reiterate that the situation is still unacceptable if you’re not satisfied. Sometimes things will still go against you, but it depends heavily on the situation when the acceptance (or escalation above the person’s head) point is and when it’s advisable to follow up and keep pushing respectfully.

  3. Artemesia*

    And remember how this worked out for the interns and their dress code; this is always a high risk move best saved for something really important and really with personal impact on the group.

    1. Liane*

      Fact Check before your group speaks up. One of the (many) morals of “AAM’s Fable: The Interns’ New Shoes” was that you will undermine your cause–if not your reputations and even jobs–when you ask for something without knowing all the facts, including why Thing is done/not done currently. There could be laws/regulations/disability accommodations around Thing. Thing may have been tried, even multiple times, and not worked. Or something else.

        1. Momofpeanut*

          The interns complained about the dress code and wanted to wear non leather flat shoes. They pointed to a person in the office who wore non leather flats. They found outa, when they were fired, that the person was a vet who had lost a leg.

    2. Kj*

      Yes, I agree. I had a hill to die on at my last job (they wanted to track our cell phones 100% of the time) and I spoke to my group and we all agreed this was not ok with us. If we could turn off the feature at times, we’d be cool with it, if not, we are were not ok with us being tracked. I went to my manger and spoke up regarding this, indicating that others were expressing concern as well. Other talked to her on their own and they ended up killing the idea. Thank god.

        1. Kj*

          They were and we were all perfectly clear that they had the right to track them- we just all agreed we’d quit if they did. The problem was in that job, the day was often fragmented and we were encouraged to do personal things in the in-between time (basically, take a long lunch break, a we usually had more work in the early AM and late PM and they didn’t want to pay us for the extra-long day) and we wanted the ability to turn off the tracker if we, say, went to the doctor’s. In addition, I had a minor creepy dude problem at another job, perpetrated by someone in IT, so I was concerned who would have access to the data. The proposal was killed for those and other reasons.

      1. Arya Snark*

        I manage wireless for several businesses and some employ tracking systems that I also manage. I’ve never seen it used for anything other than tracking people who work in the field (drivers, sales, etc) or when a device goes missing. Not that it wouldn’t/couldn’t happen but that’s not the point.
        ALSO – my biggest tip on company cell phones is to never, ever let them take your personal number over. Yes, it’s a PITA to have to carry two devices at times but it’s worth having privacy and complete disconnect from the job when you are off the clock.

  4. I heard it both ways*

    If you are all going to go individually to your manager/hr/whatever don’t count on the other people actually following through. That happened here – everyone complained, everyone agreed to go to HR, only one person actually did it.

    1. all aboard the anon train*

      This is the problem I’m facing now. Everyone wants to deal with lack of training and resources in my department, but no one else wants to speak up because they’re afraid of repercussions. So I’ve ended up looking like I’m trying to lead a mutiny because everyone else says yes in private or in group meetings, but then turns silent around management. It sucks.

  5. MsMaryMary*

    Totally agree with having multiple people do the talking. If you do decide to have a spokesperson, PLEASE tell the person she’s going to be doing all the talking beforehand.

    In high school, several classmates asked me to come with them to talk to a teacher who we felt was giving us tests that did not match the material taught in class. I agreed and was happy to join the group. Except when we met with the teacher, they all looked at me and shuffled back so I was front and center and, suddenly, the spokesperson. Thanks, guys.

    1. PB*

      I had a similar experience confronting a college roommate about cleaning up after herself. Three of us agreed to talk to her together, but when the time came, guess who did all the talking?

    2. I'll come up with a clever name later...maybe.*

      Yes! When I was in high school we had a theater teacher who was, in a nutshell, awful. About 15 students decided to go to the head of the department to file our complaint. I was one of the only senior students in the group and kind of got pushed to the front to do the speaking. I remember saying things like “He is verbally abusive to us. Sarah tell her what happened to you…” and then trailing off to let other classmates give their examples.

  6. What's with today, today?*

    Definitely make sure it’s worth it. A few years ago three of our personalities decided they wanted Thanksgiving and July 4th off, and decided to ”unionize,” (their words). We are in broadcasting, and you just don’t always get holidays off. They asked me to join their efforts. I’m the main personality and had been there the longest. I wished them luck but told them he’d probably fire them. They figured there was no way he’d fire three personalities all at once. Oh, but he did.

      1. What's with today, today?*

        Exactly. And they just generally went about it terribly and misread our boss. I still work there. Love the place.

    1. Magenta Sky*

      For every paying job in the entertainment industry, there’s a thousand people eager to take it away from you.

      And the more famous you are, the cheaper it is to replace you.

    2. Wintermute*

      They should have gone right to the NLRB, firing them was entirely illegal if they were protected (and they probably were). ESPECIALLY because they were USING the word “unionize”, my God your management handed the government their butt on a silver platter for unionbusting.

  7. AnonResearchManager*

    Definitely get a commitment from people on what they are going to say & contribute ahead of time, and be sure to “pass the mic” to them pointedly.

    I’ve been in group push back situations where I was the only one who followed through on doing any talking and it did make me look like I was speaking for the group. I felt incredibly betrayed at the time, but Alison’s note about their assuming I have it covered makes me reconsider that.

    Regardless, I ended up leaving that company soon after, partly due to the feeling of not having their support in that meeting. They sat there silently letting me “be the bad guy,” not a team I wanted to be part of any longer.

  8. AliceBG*

    Might this make the manager feel ganged-up-on?

    …Although I guess you take your manager’s personality into consideration when deciding whether to approach him/her as a group or one-on-one for each person in the group.

    1. Kj*

      Depends on the manager. I had one that was very responsive to 1:1 talks where I told her what I and others were thinking about new things (I asked permission of co-workers to share their thoughts). Because we had a good relationship, it worked like a dream to get her to adjust some policies that were bad ideas. But you have to have that solid relationship first and your manager has to trust you aren’t just gossiping or venting.

    2. Butch Cassidy*

      The manager feeling ganged-up-on is something that is certainly a risk, but when the manager is the one with much more power than your average worker, coming together as a group is sometimes the only way change can be made on a team or in a business. Making requests or complaints as a collective demonstrates the scale of the need in the situation, and if escalation is required being in a group can help empower the workers to stick to their guns.

    3. Elsie*

      This is a great question. My team are currently considering speaking to our manager about ways of working issues. She keeps putting us in situations that make it really awkward between us and the client, undermines our relationship with them and ultimately makes it incredibly difficult to do our job. I work with her the closest so I get the brunt of it but it’s an issue that impacts all of us. The question about ‘ganging up’ is something we’re struggling with though – if all of us confront her in a group, I’m sure she will feel ganged up on, definitely won’t take it well and we’re worried about the repercussions. She’s not a person who responds to criticism well so it’s debatable if the group approach will even work – one-on-one certainly hasn’t – but will we be making a bad situation even worse by confronting the issues this way? It sounds terrible but I’m not that worried about hurting her feelings – a person who makes me cry each night doesn’t deserve my sympathy! – but I don’t want the negative fall out from more senior management until I find a new job out of there!

  9. Interviewer*

    I’m a manager who occasionally hears from a self-appointed spokesperson: “That new rule is crazy. Everyone says so.” Me: “Well, we need the project codes on your time entries because Client A requires it on the invoices.” “It takes me forever to get my work done now. Project codes are stupid. Everyone is really mad about it.”

    Turns out she was complaining in the breakroom to one person who was nodding in sympathy and trying to get away from her.

    Please, please confirm your official spokesperson status, before using that kind of language with your manager. You lose a lot of credibility in the complaint process when you artificially inflate the numbers.

  10. Another Lauren*

    Alison, have you ever encountered this situation from the manager’s side? I’ve had my team bring something like this to my attention before, and realized that the issue was my own lack of transparency, but I’m wondering how you recommend handling it as the manager. Thanks!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think the keys are to (a) be open and hear them out, (b) don’t get defensive (try to see it as a *good* thing that people are doing you the favor of sharing perspectives you might not have known about), (c) if it makes sense to, share your own perspective or other info they might not have realized about the situation, and (d) if the issue isn’t resolved on the spot, tell them what will happen next. That could be even be something like, “I’m going to think about the concerns you’ve raised. I want to be transparent that I think we do need to stick to X because of Y, but I’m hearing what you’re saying, and I want to think about whether there are any changes we can make that will at least get at some of that.” (And then of course, if you say you’re going to think about it, you do need to come back to them later.)

      The biggest thing is to be open and hear people out. You want to give them a fair hearing if you don’t ultimately do what they’re asking.

      1. Another Lauren*

        Thanks so much for your reply! This was really helpful– when it happened to me, the first thing I did was to thank the team for bringing the issue to my attention, especially because I can’t resolve problems that I don’t know are problems. But your step (d) is equally crucial, so I’ll make sure to keep that top-of-mind.

        You’re the best!

  11. cheef*

    You can also take this tack with existing feedback mechanisms if you coordinate a little. We had an exercise at a company retreat that ended up in, frankly, a pretty racist place. I saw a handful of other people making grossed-out faces, so I just grabbed them all together afterwards to be like, “That was gross, let’s make sure to give feedback about it.” Then, when the company sent around a feedback survey about the retreat, I wrote up my thoughts, sent them to that group as a heads-up and for something to work from, and submitted the feedback. Each of them wrote up their own thoughts, so we had 4 or 5 really pointed pieces of feedback reach the same people at the same time, and the higher-ups took notice. Led to some decent sensitiviy/microaggressions trainings for the whole team.

  12. Persephone Mulberry*

    Thanks for this, Alison! Every time you mention “addressing this as a group” I envision 8-10 people assembling int he break room and then marching in a herd down the hall to the manager’s office and it makes me laugh at the absurdity, but I was never quite sure what the RIGHT approach is.

  13. Grace Carrow*

    Another reason for not using a spokesperson to approach the manager individually, is that the spokesperson may not be able to discuss what the manager said. About 6 of us did that at my 2nd job (we were prosecutors at a government department and our line manager had serious health issues which were affecting her capacity to do the job. We narrowly averted some miscarriages of justice, and we knew that we could not say in court what she wanted us to say).

    Our spokesperson went to Grand Boss and was told “in strictest confidence” that they were getting everything in a row to retire her on ill health grounds but that it was likely to take 6 months and that in the meantime she could come to him to get manager’s problematic instructions reviewed. As we had all signed the Official Secrets Act, “in strictest confidence” effectively meant even no hints could be given.

    She came back and reported that she couldn’t tell us why, but that she thought everything would be OK in the long run, but if we had significant problems to tell her and she would escalate to Grand Boss.
    We were all the same level in the organisation. We had 8 months of hell managing upwards, knowing that the consequences of a mistake could be life changing for the person under investigation, and until things were resolved, there were some hard feelings towards the spokesperson.

    1. Grace Carrow*

      Just want to add that at that time in the UK, government departments had an extremely generous policy about paying a pension and lump sum to anyone retired on health grounds. And there is no “at will” employment here; the law is very pro-employee generally and especially where serious illness or disability is concerned. It still wasn’t easy deciding to escalate the issue. If it had just been “stuff” then I would probably let it ride. But the thought of someone being charged wrongly with a criminal offence appalled me.

  14. Wintermute*

    I feel like I should add that you are protected from retaliation if you are communicating with co-workers to address a workplace issue, under the National Labor Relations Act.

    Now HOW you do this can be delicate, but I’ve seen too many workplace tyrants that have tried to bar all employees communicating or complaining to one another, and you should know it’s a protected right.

    The NLRB has found it illegal to:

    Prohibit communication with co-workers about workplace conditions and policies.

    Broadly prohibit employees from “negativity”, “complaining”, etc. on the grounds that doing so MAY prevent you from communicating about protected labor issues. This went so far as to conclude that a policy requiring “a positive attitude” was illegal.

    monitor employee’s social media and punish them for complaining to one another about workplace issues (though not broadly to the public, only to other co-workers, watch your privacy settings!)

    prohibit the use of company IT resources for the purposes of coordinating with co-workers to address labor issues under “personal communications” or “non-work-related use of company resources”– for the purposes of these types of policies complaints about working conditions are work-related communication.

    BROADLY, per the NLRB themselves: “An employee speaking to an employer on behalf of one or more co-workers about improving workplace conditions.” is a protected labor activity, any retaliation against someone for doing so is strictly illegal as long as you are covered by the NLRA, and unless you’re employed by your spouse, are a migrant agricultural worker, a railroad employee, an independent contractor, or are a supervisor (NOT an exempt employee, but actual management over other employees) you are protected by the NLRA.

  15. Mad Baggins*

    How is “getting a group of employees together to talk to management about changing labor conditions/work policies” different from what a union does?

  16. Kalaid*

    Years ago, at a small business I worked at, we all went to the boss and told the boss we were ALL going on strike unless Fergus was fired. Fergus was a bully, he only ever bullied people when they were alone, so there were never any ‘witnesses’. And of course ‘ it was a joke’ or ‘ You are misunderstanding’ so he was never really disciplined. After he started bullying some of the guys as well, the guys finally took the females who had been complaining seriously, but of course he still hadn’t ‘done anything wrong’ in front of the boss. We all went to the boss and said that the boss had to choose between the 10 of us, or Fergus. And that is my success story on taking things to the Boss as a group.

  17. Rikki Tikki Tarantula*

    Back when I was at ToxicJob, management tried to institute a policy that would have been in direct violation of our standards and gotten us into trouble with auditors. My group (about six of us) would have borne the brunt of it, so we sent our manager an email saying we wanted to discuss the policy with her. She freaked out and said she would only discuss it with one of us. We sent two people, hoping that she wouldn’t fire two people (we figured if one person went, that person was toast, or at the very least a PIP candidate). Meeting didn’t go all that great (policy was avoided but management was clearly grumpy about it), and there was bad blood between manager and the rest of us until pretty much everyone was gone in a whirlwind of resignations and layoffs. Good times!

  18. logicbutton*

    If most or all of the affected employees work remotely from the person they’d be going to, how would that look? If team meetings are basically non-existent and the only common method of formal communication is email, is that okay? Does one person write the email and copy everyone on it, or what?

  19. Kim*


    Thank you so much for writing this.

    I hope I might get some input on this from you. Say a group of employees wants a certain thing, would you say it is beneficial or counterproductive to over-ask? I.e., say you want to have more flexible start- and ending hours, one might ask for exactly what they want (start times from 7-9.30 and ending times 8 1/2 hours later) or one might ‘over-ask’, for example requesting start times between 6 and 10.30 and hoping to negotiate down from that.

    I wonder if asking too much might make one look like they’re out of touch, but asking for exactly what you want (in this example: compliance with industry standard, ergo 7-9.30) might result in not getting what almost all employees want, so no one is happy. Of course, I fully realise that the employer might say no regardless.

    Thank in advance should you take the time!

  20. Phoenix Programmer*

    Oof. Can not agree on no email enough. Young Phoenix was once approached by pot stirrer about a policy. Pot stirrer asked me to schedule a meeting about it with our other coworkers to discuss.

    Everyone agreed that the new work task we were asked to do was misguided and interfering with business. We decided to email our managers as a group. Pot stirrer asked me to send the email.

    I crafted the email, outlined the points everyone had brought up and stated it was from all of us.

    Surprise! Pot stirrer replied all that I DID NOT speak for him and that he actually agrees 100% with management -yadda yadda.

    Other coworkers were then too scared to speak up so left me out to dry. …

    That was the only time I tried speaking up as a group!

  21. Molly*

    The staff at our office has over-utilized this technique and are met with more resistance and eye-rolls than when one person just asks to talk to a manager about a concern.

    As other commenters have said, be cautious with where you expend your clout.

  22. Former Organizer*

    If you’re having trouble figuring out how to start the vibration with your co-workers or aren’t sure whether they’ll be on your side or not, I’d strongly encourage you to open by adding for opinions instead of starting with a monologue. (“Hey, Bonnie, have you heard about the new tonsil policy?”) You can follow up with more probing questions. People are more likely to be bought in when they come to the conclusion themselves than if you tell them it sucks, and it may bring up points you hadn’t considered that will strengthen your argument when you take it to the boss.

    1. Former Organizer*

      (Not that I think Allison is suggesting monologuing, just that it’s easy to get caught up in that if it’s an issue you care about and are not used to having these kinds of conversations.)

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