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How to Render Your Employees Speechless

How to Render Your Employees Speechless

by Frank Roche on July 23, 2007

in Culture, Legal, Policies

Speechless CoverDo you ask your employees to “speak their mind” and then turn around and suppress free speech? Dig deep. Really?

In this day of 24/7 communication and exceptional spending on corporate positioning, companies are worried more and more about their brand and image. Sometimes that means they crush free speech.

“Companies sometimes have a hair trigger,” said Bruce Barry, author of Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace. “With technology being prevalent, they’re looking at everything.”

Speechless documents a number of cases where and open exchange of ideas in the workplace is being threatened. In the book’s introduction, Professor Barry, who is Professor of Management and Sociology at Vanderbilt University, outlines the risk:

When employers overreact to essentially harmless employee speech on or off the job, it masks an effect on everyone else—the chill that it puts on other forms of expression by employees.

The Risk of Excluding Real Talent
“Young people have grown up online,” says Prof. Barry. ” They have MySpace and Facebook pages. And, sure, that may be a window on the student, but they risk excluding talent because of their online profile.”

Times have changed, and HR recruiters have to be aware of the effect of their screening for a candidate’s online presence. “Don’t document indiscretions online,” says Prof. Barry. “On the other hand, living online is part of the cultural dynamic.” And that living online means if companies exclude candidates for the snapshot of their lives that are on MySpace, then they might be losing out on some pretty good talent.

Free Speech and Employee Engagement
Have you talked about employee engagement in your shop? if you do, I’m sure you emphasize open and honest dialog. But how does that reconcile with evidence in Speechless that shows real cases of suppression of free speech in the workplace:

A factory worker is fired because her automobile in the company parking lot has a presidential campaign bumper sticker. An employee is canned after calling the CEO an “evil and satanic figure” on an anonymous message board. A stockbroker resigns after his firm pressures him to curtail his off-work political activities. A web developer is canned for mentioning her employer in her blog. An worker at a defense contractor gets the ax after refusing to participate in a Gulf War celebration.

The effect of chilling speech also chills employee engagement. Think about it: How can you emphasize open communication, but then construe it to mean “open communication about what want it to be”?

“Free speech is messy,” says Prof. Barry. “In a culture where people feel free to contribute, how you treat free speech is relevant.”

Companies Have to Right to Fire People at Will
Speechless isn’t a pollyanna look at free speech in the workplace. Companies have the right to exercise their right to what Prof. Barry calls “unemployment-at-will”. “Employees don’t have the right to speech that’s harmful to the business,” says Prof. Barry. “The concern is that some companies are too quick on the draw.”

For the most part, the law comes down on the side of companies. Employment at-will states allow companies to fire employees for cause — or not for cause. It doesn’t matter. But with free speech dismissals, there’s a real risk of suppressing beneficial dialog.

HR and Free Speech
Can HR create “free speech” policies? Not really. How well have dress code policies worked out? There’s always some interpretation of the rule, and always a need for intervention. But common sense can rule the day.

“I do think that HR functions are partly responsible for setting the tone,” says Prof. Barry. “But they can’t be too quick to assume that speech is counter to the interest of the company.”

Creating an orientation about acceptable speech in the workplace absolutely makes sense. Write it down. Tell your employees. Let them know what’s in bounds and what’s out. That works with adults. (My favorite dress code policy is: Wear clothes. That should give you a hint about my take on communication simplicity when it comes to free speech in the workplace.)

Something to Say about Speechless

I originally heard about speechless from Albert, who alerted me to an NPR interview that Prof. Barry did about Speechless. Since that time, I’ve had a run of perceptual accentuation. On the train the other day I read about a case of a cancer-stricken casino worker who was fired for his anti-smoking stance. And I’ve read quite a few others.

I think Speechless should be read by HR policy makers, managers, and company lawyers. It’s one of those books that really gets you thinking about how companies react to free speech and its effect on employee engagement.

You can buy Speechless online at Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. You can also see Prof. Barry talk about the book at these locations.


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