Free Speech at Work – Should Discussions of Politics be Banned
70% of Americans would support companywide policies that limit the discussion of politics in the workplace or with colleagues. Harris
Free speech and context:
Political speech seems natural when your organization connects deeply to an issue and awkward otherwise.
Abortion is relevant when you work for Planned Parenthood or the National Right to Life. But if you’re a construction company in Louisiana, what’s the point?
If you work for a gun manufacturer, discussing gun regulation is fair game. But if your company makes baby food, advocating for gun rights – as an organization – seems distracting.
Discussing taxes is universally relevant.
Issues and organizations:
Discussing voting laws in Georgia when your organizational footprint is in the Northeast is an unnecessary distraction.
It’s true that some customers might not do business with you if you don’t have a position on important topics, but most just want you to deliver a quality product at a competitive price.
Drive a stake in the ground for yourself. Chic-fil-A doesn’t open on Sunday. They aren’t protesting when other companies open on Sunday.
Free speech at work:
All companies already limit speech. You can’t swear at customers, for example.
Expect people to act like adults. That means respect difference. But respect may not include liking. You might not like the right to bear arms, but it’s legal within limits.
The world grows violent when people hate each other because of difference.
Just because you can doesn’t mean it’s wise.
Everyone is intolerant. The issue is where you draw the line. People who brag about tolerance can’t tolerate intolerance. Beware the inconsistency of a “tolerant” person forcing others into conformity.
Do your best to live in harmony with everyone.
Organizations have the right to limit speech that violates values.
Perhaps guidelines for sexual harassments have some application to political speech?
What suggestions do you have regarding political speech at work?
The freedoms that we are have from the United States Constitution were written for all.
The free speech and demonstration parts have long been a discussion of what is right or wrong.
In the workplace it’s up to the employers to establish guidelines for employee’s to follow without interfering with the US Constitution. If discussions are on free time such as lunch or breaks then we are in our time so to speak and its a free speech with whatever floats your boat. During working hours the conversation needs to be business as we are on the employers clock being paid by them to perform our duties to them.
After hours is your time and have at what works for you. The sense of conversation when it applies to vulgarity, profanity, nudity are ethical issues and you have a choice to do as you please, until someone takes exception to your actions at which point who is infringing on who’s rights and freedoms..
Tim makes a good point. It is one thing when you have someone who is always bringing up a political topic or view which others do not wish to discuss. In those cases the employer has a right to ask the person to back off for the unity and functioning of the team. It is quite another thing when an employer or employee tries to drive someone else out of a company for holding a different view. Speech can be regulated at work within limits. Beliefs and opinions should not be.
Thank you for a thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Dan.
One thing that surprised me in law school was learning about free speech. The ‘right’ to free expression is only preserved in the Constitution against government interference. As a general rule, (non-government) private employers can restrict speech. (When the issue does come up, it’s because the restriction results in a type of prohibited discrimination; but that’s a different legal test).
As in most areas of interpersonal conduct, a little humility and good will goes a long way. Just because an employer (or an employee) ‘can’ or even has a ‘right’ do something, doesn’t make it wise or beneficial to the group.
What’s the old adage? Not everything one thinks should be said, not everything one says should be written, not everything one writes should be published.
Always enjoy your posts, by the way. I’ve long encouraged my admin team to subscribe and read ‘em.
Mr. Brooks, your statement about First Amendment protection is accurate. While an employer generally may restrict speech on his premises, he generally may not fire an employee for exercising his First Amendment rights.
While I was in college and law school I worked summers in a lumberyard and on construction. My fellow employees and I talked freely about politics, religion, and many other matters with no problem. However, if our discussions had become arguments that interfered with serving customers or getting the work done, our employer would have had the right and duty to step in and impose some limits.
What’s your take on COVID-19 vaccine speech as a way to exert continuous pressure on coworkers who you know are unvaccinated? Is that “universally relevant” like taxes?
When we think about free speech, I suspect that many of us immediately envision those moments when either we or others are pontificating on our views. These moments are charged with energy and even stress as the speaker is likely passionate, even if restrained, about the subject at hand. And so we then consider the resulting reception of our expression as the demonstration of the terms of our freedom. I wonder though, would we be better served to instead begin our assessment of our 1st amendment rights, at the point of curiosity of other’s views? When we become more concerned with understanding others, we let go of the defensiveness which tends to be the root of offense and guttural need to restrict that which we don’t agree with. It reminds me of Chris Voss’s “Tactical Empathy”: the practice of being deeply interested in understanding the other side but with no obligation or expectation to agree. That type of curiosity underpins respect and growth so we can all be more thoughtful, kind and even confident in flexing our freedom of speech appropriately and impactfully. Many times this blog has spoken about the power of asking questions – this subject area is no different. We can help create a culture of freedom, safety and growth when we ask questions non-judgmentally even while maintaining our right to judge/discern/analyze/decide what to do with the information we gain from those questions.
To paraphrase Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull: A workplace is a democracy containing a finite number of dictators. I’ve worked in scientific organisations since my 20’s, and something I have observed is that politically, they’re generally pretty homogeneous. The differences have been far more about degree than position.
The biggest problem has been, historically and now, the “professional malcontent”. In the past
it was all about the class war, and whether somebody was of a microscopically higher or lower class than the malcontent, or the current crop of aggressive woke-ists. Either way, honest dialogue, even edgy dialogue, has never been as much of a problem as people actively picking a fight.
“Ban” is a pretty blunt instrument, and the one people seem to reach for with increasing frequency. Has it ever resolved a conflict, as opposed to containing damage?
Maybe we would do better to train people on “Crucial Conversations” or “Difficult Conversations” and get better at good conflict, which many organizations seem to struggle with even when the conflict is about the mission.