Workplace Taboo Part I – Employee Free Speech

Americans have a legacy handed down from the founders of the nation that they have freedom of speech. Perhaps it is good that this is too often taken for granted and that everyone feels free to speak their mind on almost anything and everything. It is also a right that is highly misunderstood, misquoted and misused. Look at what the first amendment actually says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Did you catch the part about the restriction being on Congress? The words “I am exercising my first amendment rights” are usually understood to mean more than is actually stated in the Constitution. Taking it to mean “anything goes” is a different matter of law. In the workplace, a company generally has much greater flexibility in restricting what their employees may say, but local statutes and case law, not the Constitution defines the acceptable limits.

Public employees may enjoy a different level of protection than those in private sector companies, but all can and should regulate speech or even forbid political conversation in the workplace. Operational efficiency is the primary goal of a for-profit organization, but stifling employees thinking does not stimulate a satisfactory work environment or encourage collaboration. It is good management thinking to clearly define the boundaries of acceptable speech in the workplace, publish this as policy, and train everybody on the rules of compliance. It is never a good idea to impose restrictions on some employees and not others, so managers need to toe the line as well as their direct reports. It is also problematic to create policy that is unenforceable or if there is no intention of enforcing the rules. Generally a policy of openness means that every exercise of this freedom has its place and time. Tread lightly in what is declared to be allowable because free conversation often borders on race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation.

In a culture that values free expression of ideas, care should be made in hiring people that fit this culture and understand the rules. After onboarding and training, assimilation into the culture should not give a different message than is intended. For the most part, employees free to express themselves will be more creative and discipline themselves, but never assume that nothing will go wrong. Monitoring without big brothering is not hard and should be totally transparent. The employees in a diverse and open culture are usually not the problem… human resources experts who think they know all about the law or corporate attorneys who don’t understand human resources can cause more problems than they solve. A partnership between legal minds and management expertise means that problems will be addressed properly and not blown out of proportion.

This is only dipping a toe in the pool of controversy over speech in the workplace. Stay tuned for a deeper look.


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