Exercise Your Free Speech Rights — Or Keep Your Job?

http://www.cartoonstock.com; used via purchased license.

When I spotted this cartoon on Cartoon Stock, I laughed at first. And then I stopped laughing suddenly as I realized that somehow I’ve seen an awful lot of things in the news lately about the ongoing attempts by big business to regulate what employees say and do – and most of them aren’t very funny at all.

I have no problem at all with companies adopting acceptable use and social media policies, or restricting worker’s rights to privacy in the workplace in specific circumstances. (For instance, the use of company email accounts to send resumes or run a freelance business.) Nor do I have a problem with employees disciplined or even prosecuted when they violate regulations like FERPA (the federal laws on the privacy rights of American students) or HIPAA (the patient confidentiality laws) by posting protected information on a blog or social media site.

And I even understand why the Supreme Court upheld the hateful speech practices of the Westboro Baptist Church – though I’m thankful for the motorcycle clubs and veteran’s groups who support military families burying their loved ones by picketing against Fred Phelps and his crazed followers. Voltaire said it best with the famous quote, “I disagree with what you say, but I will fight for your right to say it.”

On the other hand,  should employees get fired for having the “wrong” political bumper sticker? Posting a photo of themselves in their work uniform on a blog? For having gay friends?

Of the three cases mentioned above, one employee worked for a state agency, one worked for an international airline, and the third worked for a church opposed to gay marriage. (No, I don’t think that churches should be forced to hire people who don’t follow church teachings to work for the church itself – but being fired for having friends who don’t follow church teachings?)

To me, the whole area of free speech in the workplace is pretty murky – and social media is only making it murkier. Many people fall into the trap of acting and speaking casually on social network sites because they’re, well, casual conversations with friends. It’s a trap because people say things online that they’d never consider writing in a letter to the editor, or post photos that they’d never consider putting up on the wall in their office.

When I was a kid, my mother told me I should never say anything to anyone that I wouldn’t have the guts to say in front of her and my whole family. It was good advice.

When it comes to social media, I think the best advice is, “If you wouldn’t say it in front of the CEO, don’t say it online.” And if you wouldn’t want the person interviewing you for your next job to see the photo, make sure it isn’t posted online.

As for collective bargaining rights, that one doesn’t seem murky at all. Millions of Americans work as “independent contractors” or “at-will” part-time employees with no benefits, no unemployment insurance, no worker’s compensation for injuries, and no job security, retirement, paid holidays, or sick leave. Most of these “contractors” and “part-time” employees want full-time work – but they can’t find a “real job”.

Historically, there have been just two protections for employees when it comes to negotiating with employers: (a) unions and (b) scarcity.  We’d all like to think that we’re special, and that we should negotiate our own deals with management.

I’m very good at my job, and I have a track record that proves it. But the truth is that there’s probably somebody else out there who could do my job (and yours) just as well, if not better.

So unless you’re absolutely positive that you’re one of the handful of people in your field who really can “write your own ticket”, perhaps you might want to think about the issue of employee rights next time you go into the voting booth. I know that I will.

About debmcalister

I'm a Dallas-based marketing consultant and writer, who specializes in helping start-up technology companies grow. I write (books, articles, and blogs) about marketing, technology, and social media. This blog is about all of those -- and the funny ways in which they interesect with everyday life. It's also the place where I publish general articles on topics that interest me -- including commentary about the acting and film communities, since I have both a son and grandson who are performers.
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4 Responses to Exercise Your Free Speech Rights — Or Keep Your Job?

  1. Pingback: The Legal Do’s and Don’ts of Social Media | Marketing Where Technology Intersects Life

  2. Pingback: 8 Things I Wish Job Candidates Hadn’t Shared | Marketing Where Technology Intersects Life

  3. Pingback: 7 Things You Can’t Claim First Amendment Rights to Say | debmcalister

  4. Reading this post just struck me that the social media may be increasingly exposing employees’ every action to be monitored by employers, hence cropping up all sorts of policies in the workplace that border on workers’ freedom of speech.

    Your advice is simple the best guide for any employee to test what’s okay or not okay ro say in the social media: “If you wouldn’t say it in front of the CEO, don’t say it online.”

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