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Politics at work: Where is the line between free speech and hate speech?


The balance between free speech and discrimination protections is a delicate issue – and it’s one on many people’s minds following the results of the US election. But even if you want to share, should you hold back on talking politics at work?

I recently returned from a trip to New York where I couldn’t help but talk about the divisive and highly charged state of American politics. I spoke with Australian friends currently living in the city, servers at cafes, security guards at department stores – anyone I could find who was willing to share their thoughts with me. I felt as though I was experiencing America at another pivotal period in its history; it turns out I was right, but not in the way I expected.

Without a doubt, the results of the presidential election of one of the most influential nations is what people in offices around the world have been talking about all week. In Australia, we tend to live by the adage that the two things you should never bring up at a dinner party are religion and politics. Yet in places such as France and South America, conversation centred on politics is built into the fabric of culture; an Argentinian friend of mine once told me a story of long summers in Buenos Aires where neighbours and friends would meet in her family’s courtyard and argue for hours about the political issues at hand.

But when conversations do get heated at work, how do you gauge where open exchanges end, and divisive speech or hate speech begins?

There are multitudinous reasons to support open channels of communication in the workplace. Studies have shown that open discussion fosters better collaboration and creativity, as well as encouraging empathy as people gain insights into perspectives different to their own.

That said, it’s easy for tempers to flare up when it comes to hot-button issues, and HR’s primary concern as outlined in the Fair Work Act must be ensuring that all employees can come to work in an environment where they feel safe from discrimination and hate speech. And because Australia doesn’t have a Bill of Rights, legally speaking freedom of speech cannot breach a company’s employment contract.

Now, more than ever, we’re seeing a concentration of polarised communities. According to research published at New York Magazine, you’re likely to work in an office or industry with other people who share your views.

“In our office, there are a lot of gay people and most of us share the same views, so it’s a lot more acceptable to discuss these things in the workplace,” explains Travis, a 23-year-old working in the fashion industry who I sparked conversation with on my holiday.

“However, back home in rural Pennsylvania, I know a lot of people are voting differently to me so I probably wouldn’t bring it up – especially in this election where things are so tense.”

It’s similar to an experience shared by a friend who works at a Manhattan marketing agency: “When we found out there was a pro-Trump person in my office, there was a bit of gossip and people talking behind their back.”

“I am personally not sure that there are any political topics that can safely be discussed in the workplace,” says Susan Heathfield, a management consultant, and writer at humanresources.about.com.

Human resources departments should use this period to reacquaint themselves with their company policies, she suggests. And although an employee handbook generally wouldn’t address discussions about politics, “it should absolutely state that diverse opinions and diversity in general are honoured,” Heathfield says.

As for some closing thoughts on the impact the election will have more broadly on our workplaces? Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) CEO Lyn Goodear suggests global reactions will depend on Trump’s ability to behave authentically.

“As it is for all leaders, the challenge for the President Elect will be to convince the American people – and the world – of his authenticity as a leader, and not just a politician.”

Perhaps we should simply remember that it all starts with us. As my American colleague commented yesterday: “It should be a time for offices to come together and re-commit to rejecting divisiveness and treating everyone with respect in the workplace.”

What are your thoughts? Comment below.

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How the 'yes' vote will impact workers and HR - First 5000 - First 5000

[…] An appropriate use of language is also critical in respectful dialogue between workers when addressing delicate issues such as same-sex marriage. Thus, organisational policies also need to address the appropriate use of language in formal and informal dialogue at work, particularly drawing a fine line between free speech and hate speech. […]

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