Freedom of speech at work

  • Equality & Diversity
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Peninsula Group, HR and Health & Safety Experts

(Last updated )

What are your rights to freedom of speech at work? What are your staff members' rights? In this guide, we explain where your business can stand on freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech in the workplace (UK) can be a difficult subject. One of the rights we enjoy in Britain is the right to freedom of expression without getting punished. Although this is not an unlimited right, and can be subject to restrictions where appropriate. Freedom of speech at work is a different matter, as correctness and professionalism are integral to a business running successfully. As a result, free speech at work can be subject to rules that don’t operate elsewhere in our daily lives. Freedom of speech applies the same inside and outside work—the right is not unlimited and can be subject to restrictions. But in personal life there aren’t restrictions (except those informally placed by parents etc.). In work, there will be formal rules about the appropriate behaviour.

The basics of free speech

What are the fundamental rules of free speech in the workplace? While expressing your views at work can be essential with your industry context in mind, a staff member still can’t go around blurting out anything that enters their head. Having a discussion about work-related issues is different to provoking others with controversial statements. Another employee may find this offensive. This can lead to a damaged working relationship. Away from work, some employees may hold opinions that would could get viewed as discriminatory (for example, racist or sexist views). In the workplace, freedom of speech won’t usually extend to this type of debate.

Human Rights Act

The Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) indicates that individuals have the right to freedom of expression. This, however, does come with restrictions—hate speech, for example, is not tolerated. The Employment Equality Regulations and the Equality Act 2010 provide protection for individuals in the event of treatment that’s considered unfair.

What you can do

It’s your responsibility to manage remarks that are commonly viewed as careless, provocative, or hate speech. You must remember the relationship between you and your staff isn’t equal. You have the right to indicate the conduct you expect in your workplace. As a result, if an employee expresses an opinion that is defamatory, discriminatory, or offensive then this could lead to disciplinary action against the offending employee. Your code of conduct may, for example, state that offensive remarks aren’t tolerated. The offended individual may also want to raise a grievance. Other behaviour to keep in mind includes, as another example, attempting to place religious views on another person. This is often viewed as harassment and, again, this might lead to disciplinary action.

Your freedom of expression in the workplace

With the above in mind, what about your standing? While work places call for decorum to maintain a friendly working relationship, the restrictions do extend to you as a business owner. You do need to be respectful of your employees, too. If you go on to make a comment they deem to be discriminatory, this may lead to an employee tribunal. All of which indicates freedom of speech isn’t a crystal clear issue. It can lead to complications due to what constitutes a controversial or discriminatory remark. But do treat the subject with utmost care, as offensive remarks can lead to court action and dismissals. So you should endeavour to create a working environment where friendliness and tolerance are the norm.

Do you need more help?

With freedom of speech in the workplace a complicated subject, find out more by calling us today on 0800 028 2420.


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