Freedom of Speech and Your Office

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Published June 19, 2012

| FOXBusiness

Once you enter a private workplace, freedom of speech protections technically go out the window—whether you are a business owner or employee. However, your employees can, and will still voice their opinions on everything from President Obama’s stance on immigration to the L.A. Kings’ Stanley Cup victory.

So as a business owner, how do you strike the right balance of expression and protection for your workers and your company?

Carolyn Hughes, vice president of People for SimplyHired.com, said the rule of thumb for her company is that the minute a person’s “freedom of speech” becomes offensive to others in the workplace, it must be curbed.

“At that moment you have crossed the line,” Hughes said. “And your response should be more values-driven than rules-driven.”

That being said, an employer’s response to this issue should be to address complaints or actions in a way that speaks to your company’s values. It’s not necessarily having set rules in place about what can and cannot be said or done in your business.

“We have respectful workplace policies,” Hughes said. “We expect all employees to use their best judgment.”

When a worker does violate this policy, Hughes said the result rarely ends in that person being terminated. Stepping in to discuss the violation is a common practice and good protection for your business in terms of harassment lawsuits, she said. This respectful workplace policy should be outlined in your employee handbook, and distributed to workers on day one of their employment.

Polly Wright, senior consultant for HR Consultants, Inc., said it’s important to allow your own views as well as those of your employees to creep into your company’s culture. The smaller a company is, the more flexibility it has in terms of establishing a culture.

“This can even contribute to your employees’ understanding of the value of the organization,” Wright said. “But there is a difference between expressing your opinions, and forcing those opinions on someone else.”

Both business owners and employees should gauge their behavior and expressions on those around them, Wright said. See if others are expressing themselves similarly, and also consider your colleagues’ reactions.

Like Hughes, Wright said she discourages outlining certain topics to steer clear from in the workplace, for example, politics, in an employee handbook. All people entering the workplace have to take responsibility to gauge healthy guidelines for self expression, she said.

“It really comes down to handling situations in a one-on-one basis, and talking to your employees [as situations arise]” Wright said. “There is a fine line between healthy debate and crossing that line into inappropriateness. This comes down to good supervision, and being able to pull someone aside to let them know not to pursue a certain topic in the workplace.”

Two items to address in a respectful workplace policy are visual harassment, meaning any clothing, items displayed in cubicles and more that may be offensive, as well as a “speak up” clause. This means any employee who feels offended or upset by another coworker’s actions should speak to human resources or come right to you, the business owner, according to Hughes.

“It depends on your company’s culture,” Hughes said. “You may have something up that is borderline inappropriate, but you’re probably fine if no one speaks up. A business owner’s job is to determine what kind of culture they want to establish.”

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