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The Culpability of Free Speech

A turning point could perhaps be pinpointed to the launch of CNN in June of 1980. Prior to CNN, news programming delivered relatively factual information for an hour or two a day. After CNN, although it was an amazing accomplishment to cover events live as they happened and to have an endless stream of information, it created a demand for opinion. How else could 24 hours of news for 365 days per year be filled? A little over a decade later, the abundance of the accessibility for opinions skyrocketed with the growth of easy-to-use web browsers in the mid 1990’s. We have always had the right to free speech, but never before has the freedom of opinion been accessible to so many. As an employer, what is your culpability for the free speech of your employees?

The Issue

Most hiring managers are quite savvy when it comes to researching potential new hires: they check out pictures on social media, judge extracurricular activities, and may even choose to end the interviewing process based on things discovered online.
What happens when instead of judging, we end up being judged?

Consider the ramifications of an A-Player researching whether or not to interview with your organization and seeing what to them is a controversial article shared from an employee within the firm. Consider one of your key accounts, who has done business with your organization for years, distancing themselves based on a persistent string of what they perceive to be annoying comments online. This is not limited purely to social media: consider the consequences of a potential client reviewing your firm and viewing information on your website that makes them feel like their business may not be welcomed because of differing beliefs.

Rereading the prior paragraph, notice phrases like “seeing what to them is,” “what they perceive to be,” and “makes them feel like.” We are not required to take responsibility for the feelings and reactions of others, but we should take responsibility for being the catalyst for those feelings and actions.

Many people might think this only refers to extreme examples, and we can probably all think of several that have gone viral for their irreverence. However, there is no such thing as a true safe zone when it comes to common opinion.

The Regulation

This does not mean that individuals should not have the ability to express freedom of speech, and of course great things have come from it. The challenge that remains is one of authority. Who is to say what is appropriate and what is not? Is that really the responsibility of senior leadership and human resources to balance the potential damage to a company’s image and reputation against their desire to foster a supportive workforce that doesn’t micromanage the actions of every employee? In some extreme examples, termination over controversial behavior could be easily rationalized. In others, it does not require malice of forethought to make prospective candidates, clients or other employees feel uncomfortable.

If guidelines should be established, ask the following questions:

  • Is what I am about to share positive in nature or negative?
  • If negative, what is my desired outcome?
  • If positive, what audience might still have a differing opinion and am I okay with that audience feeling alienated?
  • When entering into an online debate, ask yourself how often has your opinion been changed by a similar form of communication. It is likely it has not.
  • Would I be comfortable voicing this opinion to someone in person, or would I adjust my message or tone if I was discussing this face-to-face with an individual?
  • Insert the opposite perspective or belief: how would you feel if you read it online from a vendor? Would you question if you would want to continue to work with that client?
  • Is it worth it?

The Education

In many organizations, focused training on understanding multiple perspectives is limited. This skill is about authentically learning about others and better understanding their point of view on a specific topic or situation. When we avoid personalizing other people’s opinions, we can have a more objective perspective. Widening our perspective can increase awareness and social sensitivity.

The ultimate goal with free speech is to consciously and genuinely listen to the perspective of others and see it simply as a perspective. Instead, people tend to judge perspectives or opinions as “good” or “bad.” Train individuals not to judge but view opinions exactly for what they are: the point of view of a single person based on their life experiences and values.

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