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When Free Speech at Work Isn’t So Free

Should There Be Limits To What Your Employees Can Discuss Privately?

When Free Speech at Work Isn’t So Free

By Mark Swartz

Canadian Workplace Specialist

Get this: four municipal employees were fired in the U.S. for gossiping at work. What might the implications be for your workplace policies here at home regarding acceptable standards in this area?

Let’s consider the context. Remember that America has kept alive its controversial Patriot Act, parts of which arguably muzzle free speech and erode personal privacy in ways considered Draconian before the tragic events of 9/11. The situation is somewhat less severe in Canada – not that our own anti-terrorism laws shouldn’t be of concern to the average citizen.

Here’s what happened a while back in the quaint municipality of Hooksett, New Hampshire. Four female employees, who worked for the town, were fired for discussing their boss's perceived favouritism toward another female employee. Seems the big guy had created a special position for his supposed sweetie. And she was paid more than the alleged gossipers, despite having less experience or seniority.

Now, I support office decorum as much as the person in the cubicle next to me. For instance, banning racist remarks and cracking down on gratuitous swearing seem like reasonable actions. But terminating otherwise innocent employees for discussing amongst themselves the affairs (and in this case I do mean affairs, imagined or actual) of the head honcho and a fellow staff member? Heck, you’d have to downsize your entire workforce eventually if speculating about your life were a firing offense.

So, as news of this event pervades the Internet and becomes water cooler chatter, will it end up having a chilling effect on employee openness in our country?

I certainly hope not. As an employer, you might ask yourselves the following question: do I really want informal communication among my staff to be stifled? The answer is a definite yes when it comes to things like sharing insider information, proprietary data and spreading false, malicious rumours.

On the other hand, so many positive connections between your people are built on casual discussions and shared perspectives. Much of the wrongdoing in organizations is discovered on the basis of whispered conversations finally reaching the right ear. Surely you want to encourage these unofficial lines of connecting. Otherwise, how might you ever learn that good ol' Charlie in Accounting has been padding his expense account? Or that Nareeda, one of your top performers in Sales, is thinking of leaving because her boss has been furtively hitting on her?

One way to let your employees know that you are all for appropriate free speech at work is to simply remind them about what is not acceptable. You might, for example, post (or re-issue) your policy regarding the sharing of internal information. Be specific about what is disallowed unless it will help further company performance: things like revenue figures, marketing plans, planned personnel changes, upcoming strategy revisions, etc.

Before you publicize these internal communication standards, get a legal opinion on the wording you use. Otherwise you could get you and your firm into a messy predicament.

Meanwhile, many standard personnel policies already hold staff to confidentiality commitments. And you could never police what gets said privately anyway, so you might be wondering if this whole issue is worth even bothering with. I guess my intent here is merely to remind you that free speech while at work does come with built-in limits. But those limits do not include conjecture based on actual, or perceived, inappropriate behaviour.

That’s why it’s important to distinguish between cracking down on spreading damaging, untrue rumours, which might well qualify as libel or slander if particularly vicious, versus allowing staff to gab freely about all variety of matters which may or may not be true, so long as they don’t spread lies that damage someone’s reputation, reveal confidential data, or violate your firm’s privacy policies. Just make sure that your people understand what the rules are…otherwise they may start gossiping about this to fill in the gaps.