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How to avoid an own goal when defining limits of free speech

IbyIMD+ Published 11 July 2023 in Audio articles • 6 min read • Audio availableAudio available

The lines between our public, professional, and private lives – and opinions have blurred in the age of social media. Here’s how organizations can manage the tension between freedom of expression and corporate interests and values.

Viewers who tuned in to Match of the Day, BBC Television’s long-running Saturday night football show, earlier this year, were in for a shock. Clips from that day’s Premier League matches were broadcast without commentary and there were no pundits in the studio. Everyone usually involved in presenting the program had walked out. 

Behind the disruption was the BBC’s decision to suspend the show’s star presenter Gary Lineker, a former England and Barcelona footballer, over his Twitter criticism of the British government’s refugee policy. Lineker compared the government’s rhetoric about refugees to that used in 1930s Germany. BBC bosses regarded this as an infringement of the organization’s impartiality and told Lineker he could not present that week’s program. What they didn’t count on was that all the other presenters and commentators would also refuse to appear, in solidarity with Lineker. The BBC had to climb down. By the following weekend, Lineker and his fellow pundits were back on air. 

There were complexities to the now infamous Lineker case. He was a highly paid contractor rather than a BBC employee. The details of his contract with the BBC were not publicly disclosed, but the affair highlighted what organizations and their staff around the world are discovering: the growth of social media in all its forms is raising tricky questions about what employees can and cannot say. 

Before social media, the rules were reasonably clear. If you went out with friends for drinks after work, you could badmouth your boss, or sound off about the government, and, so long as no one else heard, you could get away with it. If you did the same in a public forum – in a speech at a trade conference, for example – you would expect your company to object, saying they didn’t want to be associated with your views. And if you insulted your boss from a public platform, the company might have fired you.  

Nowhere to hide  

Social media is a public platform. And as Cynthia Stohl, Distinguished Professor in Communications at the University of Southern California, Santa Barbara, pointed out to me, social media posts don’t disappear. After-work drinks conversation is lost in the hubbub; social media posts are permanent. Even if you delete them, some trace, a screenshot perhaps, can remain.  

Added to this is the dissolving boundary between work and private life. The “bring your whole self to work” movement – that you should not have to hide your authentic personality from your colleagues – is, as Paul Thompson, Emeritus Professor at the University of Stirling, told me, an idea that many companies have promoted in an effort to make workplaces more inclusive. But by then setting rules for what they can say on social media, “employees are being given a mixed message. Companies are saying ‘bring yourself to work’ but don’t express yourself in a way that may embarrass the company.” 

Gary Lineker was shown a red card for criticizing the British government’s refugee policy - Photo: Getty

That blurring of private and work selves was underway before COVID-19. With the pandemic and lockdowns, it blurred some more. Not only had people’s private spaces become their workplaces; it was no longer clear when working life stopped and private life began.  

Inevitably, the confusion between work and social media has found its way to the courts. In a 2020 article for Thomson Reuters Practical Law, British lawyer Deborah Hely wrote about a European Court of Human Rights case in which Csaba Herbai, a human resources manager at a Hungarian bank, co-founded and wrote for an HR website. Describing himself as an HR manager in a large bank, but without mentioning his employer’s name, he wrote about how difficult it was for HR managers to develop a business-focused HR strategy and also criticized new tax legislation. The bank said he had acquired the expertise to write about these subjects at work, that he had breached its code of ethics by talking about what were, effectively, the bank’s activities, and fired him. 

The court held that this violated Herbai’s right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The court said that he was simply sharing his knowledge on a matter of public interest, that he wasn’t acting out of personal grievance and that the bank had failed to demonstrate that he had damaged its interests. 

By contrast, a UK employment tribunal case in 2011 found that a shift manager at Wetherspoons, a pub chain, who had shared her frustration about some deeply unpleasant customers on Facebook had been fairly dismissed. The shift manager had told the customers, a couple, to leave after they had subjected her to a torrent of verbal abuse and physical threats. She had then received a series of foul-mouthed phone calls from the couple’s daughter. The company agreed that she had kept her calm and behaved professionally throughout. But while still at work, she had vented her frustration to friends – she thought privately – on Facebook, swearing about the couple and mentioning their first names. When their daughter complained to the company that she had seen the Facebook messages, the shift manager was sacked. The tribunal accepted that the company had a right to act as it did. 

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Looking at these two cases, the court decisions seem reasonable. In the Hungarian bank case, the HR manager was expressing a calm opinion not directly related to his employer. In the pub case, the shift manager had clearly gone too far in naming the couple in a forum that was not as private as she had thought; although one can sympathize with her view that, given the abuse and threats she had faced, a lesser sanction might have been considered. 

Freedom of expression, with caveats 

The grey area lies in cases like Lineker’s, where people express opinions that are not necessarily aligned with the company’s position. To what extent should employers accept that people have a right to freedom of speech provided they do not insult colleagues, name customers, or reveal proprietary information? 

Stohl says that deciding where the line lies shouldn’t be a top-down decision. Social media policies should be the result of a discussion with employees and trade unions. Provided employees do not say anything that is clearly unacceptable, such as expressing racist views, they should not be deprived of their right to speak. 

She adds that there are other decisions the organization needs to make: In an era of increasing gig working, who are your employees? Are they those who are fully part of your organization, or contractors like Lineker? And should each group be subject to different rules? 

To this, we can add: organizations should be honest and employees need to understand what working for an organization entails. When people enter employment, whether as staff or contractors, they inevitably give up some freedoms. They may be given latitude to express personal opinions, but damaging the organization is never going to be acceptable, regardless of the medium. We always need to make some adaptation to the places we work in. A good employer will give us the freedom to speak, but the needs of the company – to maintain its reputation and protect its interests – will always impose some constraints. We can never truly bring our whole selves to work. We need to carve out some space away from work to do that. And face-to-face chatting in private, or where there is so much noise you can’t be overheard, is the safest place to say what you want.  



Michael Shapinker

Michael Skapinker

Contributing editor of the Financial Times

Michael Skapinker is a contributing editor of the Financial Times and the author of Inside the Leaders’ Club: How Top Companies Deal with Pressing Business Issues. He is also a member of the I by IMD editorial board.


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