HR & Employment Law Insights

Helping family businesses, start-ups, charities, social enterprises, and other growing or established businesses throughout the UK make sense of HR and Employment Law challenges.

We put freedom of speech in the workplace under the microscope.

In the UK, one of the rights that Brits enjoy is the freedom to express their views without fear of punishment or retribution.

However, when it comes to the workplace, freedom of speech may not operate on quite the same principles.

We take a closer look at freedom of speech in the workplace and question whether it really does exist.

Expressing your views

It’s a poor employer that doesn’t provide a platform for employees to feedback and expresses

he way they are feeling but this doesn't necessarily mean that there should be total freedom of speech.

Discussing work-related issues and personal dis-satisfaction is one thing, but expressing controversial or offensive opinions is something very different.

In their private lives, employees may choose to hold discriminatory, sexist or racist opinions and even make their thoughts public. However in the workplace, freedom of speech does not extend to cover this kind of conversation.

Legislation

The Human Rights Act (HRA) specifies that individuals should have the right to freedom of expression but there are limitations to how and where this would apply. It would be a very unusual tribunal finding that would support an employee’s rights to hate speech, despite what the HRA says.

The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations also provided protection for individuals against any unfair treatment or abuse as a result of their “religion, religious belief or similar philosophical belief”.

However, this statute provides protection from persecution not the right to force their faith or beliefs on anyone else.

In addition, during test cases, it was found that the protection of this particular piece of legislation wasn’t considered as extending to cover extreme right-wing views, such as membership of the BNP.

What an employer can do

Employers have a responsibility to manage careless talk

Although there is a limited amount of protection for employees wishing to exercise their right to freedom of speech at work, there are a number of other, more legally compelling routes which could easily overturn this.

Firstly, the relationship between an employer and an employee is not an equal one; the employer has the right to stipulate what kind of conduct they find unacceptable in the workplace.

However, the expression of any opinion which is offensive, defamatory or discriminatory in any way could lead to disciplinary action against the employee who expressed it. There’s a variety of reasons this could happen; an employer’s code of conduct may specifically cite bullying or offensive comments as misconduct. Alternatively, the individuals who have been affected by the opinions could also raise a grievance.

Even views which aren’t intended to be offensive could be prohibited at work. For example, an individual who holds a particular religious view should refrain from being over-zealous and forcing their opinions onto their colleagues. Doing so could be viewed as harassment and disciplinary action could be pursued as a result.

For employers

It’s clear from the above, that there’s no real freedom of speech in the workplace for employees, but what about employers?

Despite making the rules, employers don’t have everything their own way and have to be respectful of employees. Expressing opinions which are discriminatory or offensive in any way could very easily leave them open to legal action or a tribunal from disgruntled employees. In addition, the same principles about harassment or bullying would apply.

Conclusion

As we’ve seen, although freedom of speech is often seen as a fundamental right in the UK, a fact which is backed up by the European Convention on Human Rights, it’s not always as clear-cut as it may first appear. Views which are controversial, discriminatory or offensive could result in disciplinary action, or even dismissal in the most severe of cases.

For more information contact us at The HR Booth on 01383 695516 or email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Image Credits: Olivia Ward and Lucy Doherty