A recent study from researchers in the Penn State University School of Hospitality Management has demonstrated the significant influence that an organization’s leadership style has on employees voicing their food safety concerns.

The research was led by Heyao “Chandler” Yu, Ph.D., Assistant Professor and Elizabeth M. King, Early Career Professor of Hospitality Management at Penn State. A survey was conducted, eliciting responses from 239 food handlers who have direct contact with foods from 66 restaurants in Taiwan. The researchers state that the data is broadly applicable to other regions across the world.

To examine how leadership styles impact employee food safety advocacy, the researchers first determined what motivates those who voice their concerns, and concluded that specific motivations can serve as a moderator between leadership style and how employees speak up. Specifically, Dr. Yu underlined the importance of two motivations regarding social desirability: “agentic motivation,” which makes people feel empowered and knowledgeable, and “communal motivation,” which involves people’s desire to not want to be disliked by others.

Both agentic and communal motivation can be influenced by leadership to lead employees to use their voices in a promotive or prohibitive way, explained Dr. Yu. A “promotive voice” refers to speaking up in a way that reinforces food safety behaviors, and it can be more easily recognized or interpereted as positive by colleagues and supervisors in comparison to the “prohibitive voice,” which involves speaking out about food safety concerns and could be interpreted as negative.

Although using both the promotive and prohibitive voice can both come from a place of good intent, using the prohibitive voice can be risky if employees take it personally when they are reported or stopped from doing a behavior.

Therefore, according to Dr. Yu, it is important for food establishment managers to cultivate an environment where employees feel safe to voice their concerns when they observe improper food safety behaviors. This can be done through “ethical leadership,” which promotes an environment where fairness in prioritized and criticisms should not be taken personally, as they benefit the collective. If workers are unafraid to fairly criticize each other’s behaviors, then dangerous food safety practices could be stopped before they lead to foodborne illness outbreaks or other food safety crises.

Additionally, the study found that stronger bonds between managers and employees strengthens both the influence of ethical leadership on prohibitive voice and leadership prioritizing food safety through promotive voice. Overall, Dr. Yu concluded that it is crucial for leaders to reinforce food safety, set a strong example, and build good relationships with workers.