Business Schools

Fear vs. Free Speech at Work


In his new book, Vanderbilt B-school professor Bruce Barry explores the sometimes threatened status of free speech in the workplace

Do you feel as if your boss controls what you say and do even after hours? If so, you're not alone. After noticing more and more examples of people getting fired or being shunned for their political affiliation, activism, or speech, Bruce Barry, a professor of management and sociology at the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University, set out to research free speech in the workplace. What he discovered, he says, is that employers have much more power over our personal lives than ever before.

The culmination of his research is the recently published Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, June, 2007). In it, Barry demonstrates the problem through examples—including a woman in Alabama who lost her job for having a John Kerry bumper sticker on her car—and offers viable solutions. But if you're looking for conspiracy theories, don't look to Barry's work. He admits that there's no rampant movement by managers to censor everyone or fire every person who keeps a blog. But he is concerned when free speech is stifled.

"What I'm concerned about is that when someone does get fired for his blog, and it becomes widely known, it puts a chill on everybody else," says Barry. "It sends a clear message: Watch what you say. Your employer is paying attention to your speech, even in some cases when it doesn't have very much at all to do with your job."

Barry recently discussed the erosion of free speech with BusinessWeek reporter Francesca Di Meglio. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

What surprised you most about the research you did?

A lot of the research I did was legal research trying to answer the questions, "Is there free speech in the American workplace? For whom? To what extent?" The knee-jerk answer is, "Not really, because constitutional rights in this country don't really apply on private property or in the private sector." One of the surprises was to actually find out there are some rights to free expression in the workplace, even in the private sector.

[The issue] is complicated. It depends, in part, on where you live because some of this is governed by employment law, which varies widely from state to state. It depends, in part, on what kind of speech we're talking about because there are some laws that cover certain kinds of activity, like political activity, but not others. Those laws also vary from state to state. The other alarming thing I found was that, even with all those complications and exceptions, employers have nearly total control over the expressive activities of employees in this country both on and off the job.

You write that the erosion of free speech has gotten worse in the last 30 years. Why do you think that's happening as we're modernizing and, one would hope, becoming more transparent and tolerant?

You can look at it from both sides—the perspective of the employer and employee. From the standpoint of employees, work has changed over the last 30 years. There's less job security, more global trade, more people relying on multiple employment opportunities to form a professional career.

All of this makes for less job security and more concern about getting in trouble with one's employer. I think people self-censor more because of the changing nature of employment. Something else that has gone on in the last 20 or 30 years is increased attention by employers to their image and stewardship of their brand and reputation. This makes them increasingly cautious about employee expression that might depart from the preferred corporate point of view or somehow reflect negatively on the brand, image, or firm (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/15/04, "Free Speech and the Factory Floor").

I spend a good part of the book talking about technology—e-mail, blogs, the Web, all of this. Employee speech is the same we've always had—kvetching about the boss or one's co-workers. What is new is that technology gives people opportunities to engage in that age-old speech in new ways that reach a lot more people and can be found by employers. The problem is that the same tools that give employees new ways to express themselves also give employers new tools to police that speech.

Do you think fear is driving employers? If so, what are they afraid of?

I don't think there's some sort of active conspiracy to shut down speech. A combination of law, conventional wisdom, and habitual management practice creates this climate. We know that the law gives employers in the U.S. a great deal of latitude, especially in the private sector, to do what they will with employees—fire them for good reasons, bad reasons, no reasons—in the absence of an employment contract. There is an impulse on the part of managers to shut down speech that even remotely might threaten corporate interests. I grant that it's their legal right under our system. But I think it's ill advised and bad for employees and society.

Work is where people live out major parts of their lives. It's where they construct their civic selves. It's where they make ties with other people. It's where they sometimes express opinions—political, civic, otherwise. If you shut down people's lives as citizens during the workday, or create a climate where even after work they have to worry that their employer might object to their activism, you create situations where people choose not to actively engage as citizens. This really harms the health of a democracy, and that's a bad thing.

How bad is the problem really? Is there hope?

I'm not going to argue that it's the paramount problem facing workers in a country where people are worried about employment security, stagnant wages, health-care issues and costs, and retirement. It's easy to say that this is not the biggie. On the other hand, if people don't feel free to talk about the issues that are the biggies, then it's all interrelated.

One thing that is also changing in the world—maybe it's always been the case—is the intersection between work and public policy. People's opinions on these things matter. If people feel as though they are risking their jobs by being active in some of these issues, then I think that is a very serious problem. It's not hard to convince people that there's declining civic participation in this country. Workplaces are part of the problem, rather than the solution, to civil engagement.

I spend a lot of time in the book saying, "What we can do about this?" I offer some remedies in two categories. One is legal. We could make big changes to constitutional law that change how the Bill of Rights and free speech apply on private property. That's not going to happen, but we could do it. I want to make some suggestions—smaller, more practical ones—about employment law. It varies from state to state. States that don't do it so well could pass laws that mimic the states that do it better. The better practices could spread. That would grant workers more protection, and that's not outlandish by any means. I think we even see some of that happening.

The other big suggestion I make has to do with employers. We hear about cases because they make the news or land in court. But nobody calls a lawyer or reporter until some manager makes an unfortunate decision. The real point of leverage is with these managers and employers and how they see the role of employee expression. What I urge in the book is a change in mindset.

Employers should not be so quick to assume that expressive activity is a threat to the business. They should understand that they don't just live in a nine-to-five world where people can do all of their speech and free expression on nights and weekends on their own time. Work and life are interconnected. Employers are just as much stewards of civil society as any other big institution. If employers would see themselves more as participants in that civil society—rather than as an institution apart from it—maybe they would be a little more tolerant and less impulsive at shutting down speech.

What message would you send to business students?

Someone once said, "We live in a society, not just purely an economy." Business schools have this unfortunate tendency, my own included, to go too far in conditioning students to think that market principles of economic behavior are the overarching, ruling principles of life that should guide all decision making.

I would urge business students to think more broadly than that, to understand that they don't cease to be citizens of a deliberative democracy when they enter the corporate workplace door. Society benefits when employers understand that the people who come to work for them may be selling their labor but not necessarily their civic selves or consciences, and they shouldn't be asked to do so.


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