One of the most celebrated and protected amendments to the United States Constitution is the First Amendment and its statement that Congress cannot limit or abridge “the freedom of speech, or of the press.” This protection, however, only applies to public discourse and not a business’s private workplace. While the amendment specifically and clearly prohibits the government from making rules that restrict speech, it does not prevent companies and individuals from doing the same.
Limiting Speech in the Workplace
There are federal and state laws in place that prohibit a company from restricting certain types of employee’s speech that have been decided, from a public policy perspective, to be worth protecting. These protections include, but are not limited to, discussions about wages, hours, and working conditions. This leaves a business free to restrict other forms of speech and to fire employees whose speech is problematic to a company’s culture or image.
Recently, the topic of speech was in the spotlight when a software engineer at Google, James Damore, penned a memo on Google’s diversity policy. In his memo, he offered a critique of his employer and posited that “biological differences” between men and women were what caused the difference between their employment in technology fields. In a move that probably didn’t surprise many people, Google fired him, citing his memo and the company’s conduct policy. In particular, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai said that, which the company is in favor of self-expression, the theme of the memo was “offensive and not OK.”
Companies like Google have an extensive code of conduct and employee policies in place aimed at creating a safe workplace and a company culture that empowers and supports many different employees. Damore’s memo was in clear violation of company policy. Since Google had clearly crafted policies, they had clear and documentable grounds on which to fire Damore.
Limiting Employee Speech Outside of the Workplace
Businesses often release guidelines for employee’s use of social media. These are designed to ensure all employees, while being able to tweet, post, blog, and vlog as themselves, are still maintaining the standards and voice of the company. These guidelines can include preventing journalists from expressing partisan opinions to how criticism from customers should be handled.
These policies, created to limit speech both within and outside of the workplace, are generally crafted with the aim of creating a certain corporate culture and portraying a consistent image to the public. With these policies in hand, businesses also have the right to dismiss an employee who chooses not to follow these policies. Most employee handbooks contain discipline guides that outline procedures for what happens if an employee violates company policy. As long as corporate policies do not discriminate based on age, gender, ethnicity, or other protected classes, then they are applicable grounds on which to guide employee behavior.