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Appropriate Free Speech At Work Mark Swartz, M.B.A. M.Ed.

About the Author

Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is Canada's Career Activist. His insights reach millions yearly as the Career Advisor, as author of the best seller "Get Wired, You're Hired," also as a professional speaker and coach on career/work issues. A former Toronto Star careers columnist, Mark's advice is forthright and practical. For Canada's biggest directory of free career articles, and for personalized coaching, please visit

Mark Swartz
Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Four municipal employees were recently fired in the U.S. for gossiping at work. What effect, if any, will the implications be for your workplace and its policies regarding acceptable standards in this realm?

Ah, the good ol' U.S. of A. First the much vaunted Patriot Act, parts of which arguably unnecessarily muzzle free speech and erode personal privacy in ways considered Draconian before the tragic events of 9/11. Then George W. Bush's laissez-faire approach to encouraging free enterprise: essentially letting the foxes guard the henhouse by hiring industry lobbyists for key oversight positions. And, now the piece de resistance: a township firing employees for (gasp!) gossiping about the boss while at work. What next, electrodes attached to your staff's skulls to detect pernicious thoughts?

Maybe you haven't heard about this shocking instance of terminations yet. It took place not long ago 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 ostensible sweetie. And she was paid more than the alleged gossipers, despite having less experience and seniority.

Now, I support office decorum as much as the person in the cubicle next to me. For instance, banning racist epithets and cracking down on gratuitous swearing seem like reasonable actions. But terminating otherwise innocent employees for discussing amongst themselves, presumably the affairs (and I do mean affairs , imagined or actual) of the head honcho and a fellow staff member?

Of course, we must keep in mind that in the United States , people can be fired at will. In other words, no excuse whatsoever is needed to turf employees. Before we congratulate ourselves on being far more civilized, may I remind you that In Canada we're not so different in this respect. Unless you're covered by an employment contract or collective agreement, you can pretty much be terminated without cause at any moment. All an employer has to provide is payment in lieu of notice, and a Record of Employment that doesn't state that you were fired for cause. Then the downsized employee can seek redress through the courts or human rights tribunals, if they have the time and persistence (or in the case of a legal challenge, the money) to do so.

So, as the buzz about 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. And as HR practitioners, 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 info and proprietary data or spreading false, malicious rumours.

Then again, so many positive connections between your people are built on casual discussions and shared perspectives. And 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 pertinent to furthering company performance: things like revenue figures, marketing plans, intended personnel changes, upcoming changes in strategy, etc. Run your ideas about this by your legal department before publicizing it, though, or you could get you and your firm into a messy predicament.

In any event, many personnel policies already hold staff to confidentiality commitments. And you could never police what gets said sub rosa anyways, 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.

So what do you think about all this? Will you be responding formally by altering or re-posting policies? Is this matter of much concern to you and your firm? I would very much like to hear what you have to say, considering how controversial and murky this subject is. I will try to post some of your responses (anonymously) on this page in the coming weeks. Feel free to contact me via my website, at But don't leave me in a vacuum here, otherwise I may have to conjure up gossip to fill the void.

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