03rd October 2023
Can Workplace Inclusion and Free Speech Coexist Harmoniously?
In a post-pandemic workplace, the balance between free speech and inclusion is examined. While promoting free speech is essential, it becomes challenging when it infringes on someone’s identity or causes stress. Striking this balance is crucial for psychological safety, where employees can work without feeling their identity is under attack. Key challenges include distinguishing critique from harm, managing diverse viewpoints, and deciding which voices to amplify or challenge. Priorities to address this balance include explicit communication, fostering a feedback culture, and investing in continuous learning. The goal is to see free speech and inclusion as mutually reinforcing, leading to a cultural shift and amplifying the right voices to thrive together harmoniously.
When employees hold intolerant views, should we tolerate them in the name of inclusion and free speech, or is the employer’s role broader than that?
Despite the many strides made towards greater diversity and inclusion in the workplace in recent decades, a recent CIPD report found that one in three UK employees felt they had experienced bias in the workplace due to their gender, age, race, or disability. How can we still be in this place when there has been so much focus on DEI?
Evidently this is a persistent issue, so perhaps it’s time for all of us to analyse our understanding of inclusion, particularly in light of the ‘paradox of tolerance’.
The paradox presents a conundrum: to what extent should intolerant views be tolerated, especially when they impede on another’s identity or lived experience? On the surface, fostering an environment that respects free speech seems straightforward, but the waters muddy when words morph into weapons against someone’s identity.
The modern corporate workspace isn’t just a place to ‘work’; it’s an ecosystem, an environment where positive people experiences are paramount – so what do we do about it?
The issue of psychological safety
Debating the boundaries of free speech is more than an exercise in philosophy; it’s about ensuring psychological safety.
When individuals feel that their identity is under attack or when there’s a constant need to defend their lived experiences, it creates an environment of defensiveness and stress.
Without clear guidelines, ambiguity can lead to unintentional harm or misuse of ‘free speech’.
Notably, Google’s two-year study on team performance found that psychological safety was the top factor driving high-performing teams.
How would you feel knowing your colleague held views that were counter to your identity or your own ethnicity, and having to work with them each day?
Key challenges of balancing free speech and inclusion:
- Distinguishing critique from harm: Constructive critique of ideas is healthy, but when it veers into the personal territory of someone’s identity, it becomes detrimental. Where should organisations draw the line?
- Managing diverse viewpoints: Diversity isn’t just about demographics. With varied backgrounds come varied perspectives, some of which may clash. How can organisations handle such diversity of thought without alienating or marginalising voices?
- Platforming vs. silencing: The right to hold an opinion is different from the right to have it amplified or weaponised. In workplaces, how should organisations decide which voices to uplift and which to challenge or even silence?
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