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Do we have the right to freedom of speech at work?

freedom of speech at work
Workplaces, in a reflection of wider society, are becoming more polarised. Byrne Dean works with large employers on culture and behaviour and discuss the current climate when it comes to freedom of speech at work. In his opinion people are making less effort to understand each other, and are paying less attention to the obligations of respect they owe their colleagues. In this setting, freedom of speech is taking on increasing relevance. In wider society, it’s certainly becoming a polarised football, kicked around by divergent groups as they strive to assert dominance amid today’s culture wars.

One day in July captured this well. Politician Nigel Farage contended that Coutts Bank unjustly penalised him for his outspoken views, while weapons expert Dan Kaszeta found himself no platformed’ at a government-backed conference apparently for voicing (diametrically opposed) opinions on Brexit and immigration that challenged the government’s stance.

In a workplace, of course, it’s difficult to cancel or no platform a colleague expressing views you find problematic.

Let’s talk about what freedom of speech means at work

We conduct investigations into things people say or do, and talk proactively to groups of employees about their employer’s policies on behaviour or harassment.

In this work, we’re increasingly answering questions about freedom of speech and advising employers on how to navigate polarisation.

In any discussion we have about behaviour, it’s often immediately obvious that people haven’t really thought about what their employer’s policies actually mean to them and their behaviour.

They see the policies as being for other people – for the bullies and harassers – not as applying to the political opinion they express in an exchange at team drinks, or their jokey comment about Gen Z in the lift.

People commonly express surprise at the subjectivity underlying whichever definition of harassment we’re telling them applies to their behaviour; at how harassment starts whenever the other person finds something intimidating or offensive.

A few minutes into any discussion, someone will often ask whether the policy doesn’t limit their (but they’ll actually say ‘people’s’) freedom of speech.

Whenever I’m asked about freedom of speech at work, I echo the response I gave when first asked, nearly two decades ago: by choosing to work here, you effectively surrendered that freedom.

We must consider our colleagues at all situations

Freedom of speech in a work setting would be the ability to freely express your views and opinions, safeguarded from any adverse consequences.

As soon as you read those words, you know that there can’t be an absolute assurance of safety; that your own rights must be qualified by your colleagues’ rights.

Any employer’s policy must require you to be considerate of the impact you have on your colleagues. Because employers owe all of their employees duties of protection and safety.

Whatever their beliefs, everyone has the right to a workplace in which they can thrive; free from the distraction of others’ views that they may find offensive.

Interestingly, most employers have imposed many of these obligations on themselves.

Yes, the Equality Act prohibits discrimination and harassment on protected grounds. But in recent decades, many larger and more progressive employers have treated these legal rights as a baseline or floor – to be built up from.

This has been corporate orthodoxy not as part of a great woke conspiracy, but because of the compelling and growing body of research showing that the most inclusive organisations are also the most productive and profitable.

Underpinning this theory is the idea that inclusion – people being valued and respected for who they are and what they bring – drives both individual and collective creativity and productivity. This is behind the need to be considerate of your impact.

How should HR manage the freedom of expression at work, amongst people that are more polarised in their views than ever before?

You could adopt what used to be referred to as zero tolerance.

This essentially translates as not doing anything at all that could offend someone. As soon as you start analysing this idea, you realise that it’s unlikely to create a workplace that anyone is attracted to.

Or you could try to head any problems off at source, by seeking to only employ people who violently agree with each other.

When choosing who you employ (as opposed to providing a service to them, like Coutts were to Mr Farage), you are allowed to ensure that people share your values or fit the psychological profile you deem most attractive. The problem here though is also obvious.

Homogeneous groups are neither as productive nor creative as heterogeneous groups.

A healthier approach depends on three things:

1. Be clear on where you stand on freedom of expression at work.

This will require a frank, C-suite level discussion about the kind of workplace you want to be, about values and what the words in the policies really mean for you, and your people.

What do you expect of people who may have polarised views (and that includes you) in the office, over a video call, in virtual chat spaces, over a drink?

How far will you, effectively, curtail their freedom of expression?

That boardroom conversation needs to be informed by real data. Data about your organisation’s diversity and about what your people experience and want – this is what will enable them to thrive. It’s imperative that the decisions you make don’t only suit those making these decisions.

2. Communicate where you stand

It’s about far more than having the policy. Leaders must proactively role model what’s been agreed.

They must talk to their teams; open the conversation and show they’re prepared to continue to have it.

And, when something goes wrong and someone is offended (which will happen), address it effectively and proportionately; don’t try and sweep it under the carpet.

In communicating with people, stress that they’re accountable – all of us are responsible for the environment we work in. Generating this sense of accountability takes time because people need to overcome fear.

Leaders need to project psychological safety to their people. And senior transgressors need to be tackled.

3. Help people disagree well

Create a communication culture where people know when to stop (or not to start) a conversation, how to respect different views, and how to listen to understand a different perspective.

We know heterogeneous groups have huge potential. But, particularly in polarised times, they can, of course, spectacularly fail. That’s why it’s important to work on how we all behave.

Bring diverse groups together and then set them up to succeed – by helping them understand how they can better interact with each other.

Matt Dean is founder of work behaviour and culture specialists Byrne Dean