Free Speech and the Workplace

Updated: Mar 5, 2020

The Economist February 29th, 2020 Speech at work “None of your business”. “Companies are increasingly worried about what their employees say-inside and outside the office”

The rise of social media amplified the opportunities to instantaneously tell not just your colleague or close friend but much of the world your point-of-view. What was once ephemeral happy hour fodder is now available as a tightly unitized record-easily saved and distributed on a whim and beyond the author's control. Knowledge is power and dispatches in-this-form can be frightening for the author and associates be they friends, foes or organizations.

In the western workplace, “Free Speech” is uniquely protected to avoid retaliation on religious grounds. Increasingly now, workers are seeking similar protections for other beliefs. Current thinking suggests certain beliefs might be protected if they are 1) “genuinely held”, 2) based on objective data and not just opinion, 3) a “substantial part of life”, 4) cohesive, serious and important and 5) “…worthy of respect in a democratic society and compatible with human dignity and the rights of others”. Examples potentially meeting these criteria, as determined by “European Tribunals” are 1) opposition to hunting, 2) Darwinism, 3) the “higher purpose of public broadcast journalism”, 4) ethical veganism and 5) Anthroposophy.

Being political, in the workplace, can get you fired in many locales across America. Surprisingly, political protections are much stronger in free countries of Europe. This raises obvious concerns and is particularly important in the current political divide. Yet employers “say they need to restrict the expression of certain views in order to create inclusive workplaces”. More concerning is the growing desire of businesses to suppress free speech outside of the workplace. As many as 10% of “firings in the Netherlands are now related to social media”. Pushback to such firings are typically paid-off in exchange for silence. Particularly thorny are posts that “bring an employer into disrepute”.

To circumvent such issues, to their credit, many companies are defining expectations in their current code of conduct. The depth of detail varies widely, “Intel simply asks employees to ‘use common sense’”. A consultant observer suggests that focusing on civility in the workplace is key. Put aside personal beliefs and focus on the shared organizational mission.