Freedom of expression in working life
What is the situation really like for freedom of expression in Norwegian workplaces? And what should be done so that employees feel comfortable to express themselves freely? These are among the questions that the Freedom of Expression Commission dealt with in a report that was presented during Arendal Week 2022.
On 15 August 2022, the Commission presented the report "An Open and Enlightened Public Conversation".(1) The report examines the current state of freedom of expression in Norway and what measures can be used to strengthen freedom of expression.
Despite the fact that working life was not explicitly mentioned in the Commission's mandate, the topic has nevertheless been allocated a chapter in the report. According to the Commission, this is because working life is an area with significant variations and challenges when it comes to freedom of expression. In order to remedy the situation, the Commission has proposed, among other things, changes to the Working Environment Act and the Public Administration Act.
Freedom of expression in working life
Freedom of expression is protected by both the Constitution and several international conventions. Therefore, everyone should be able express themselves as they choose, including in the workplace. Various surveys show that many employees feel that they have limited freedom of expression. This applies to both the public and private sectors and employees at different levels in the hierarchy.
In the report, the Commission focuses on factors that obstruct freedom of expression, such as loyalty to the employer with regard to employee reputation and misrepresentation. The lack of job security is also significant, as employees on temporary contracts may refrain from speaking out because they want to increase their chances of extended employment.
The Commission goes on to express concern that so many workers and professionals restrain themselves, as it points to a downward trajectory in the development of the freedom of expression.
It is also highlighted that the exchange of opinions and criticism in working life provides a forum for important information, assessments and arguments. This can lead to better decision-making, improvements to the workplace and mitigating errors or deficiencies.
According to the Commission, the perceived limitations mean that society misses out on voices from people who have insight and experience in important areas, and that working conditions do not become the subject of public debate to the same extent as other topics.
In order to better facilitate real freedom of expression in working life, the Commission proposes to:
- add a new clause in section 4(3) of the Working Environment Act (on the employer's responsibility for the psychosocial working environment), which would require the employer to facilitate an appropriate environment for individual expression. This change would help ensure that freedom of expression in the workplace becomes part of the company's fundamental business practices;
- amend the Public Administration Act to show that the duty of confidentiality of public servants does not prevent information from being shared with the media or others that will use the information to inform the public about a matter of general interest. The change should make it clearer which "leaks" of classified information are permissible; and
- specify in the Public Administration Act that public servants are allowed to notify the media without first notifying internally.
In addition, the Commission encourages the use of several "soft" measures, which include formulating guidelines for various workplaces that established freedom of expression as a foundation in order for deviations from this standard to be more evident. Such deviations will then need to be justified.
The Commission also encourages systematic work with the culture of expression in working life, through such initiatives as campaigns and skills development courses in various workplaces and working life services.
For further information on this topic please contact Ole Kristian Olsby or Mari Vindedal at Homble Olsby | Littler by telephone (+47 23 89 75 70) or email ([email protected] or [email protected]). The Homble Olsby | Littler website can be accessed at www.homble-olsby.no.