If workers’ ‘free speech’ threatens others, you can ban it

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources,Workplace Communication,Workplace Conflict

Issue: Employees wrongly believe the First Amendment protects their comments at work.

Risk: You don't need to put up with employees who claim their harassment or bias is just "free speech."

Action: Lower the boom on obnoxious or illegal behavior that employees tie to First Amendment rights.

The next time an employee argues that he has a First Amendment right to say whatever he wants at work, wear a T-shirt with a controversial message or display a sexually suggestive photo inside his locker, tell him that his free-speech rights stopped the minute he walked into the workplace.

In fact, First Amendment free-speech protections do not apply in the private workplace. Your responsibility to maintain a harassment-free workplace comes first.

Recent case: A mechanic who worked on company delivery trucks belonged to the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Following a heated political debate, he pasted several Confederate flag stickers on his toolbox.

When a black employee complained, the company asked the mechanic to remove the stickers, even offering to buy him a new toolbox. He refused and was fired for violating the company's anti-harassment policy. He sued, citing his First Amendment free-speech rights.

The trial court dismissed the case, and a federal appeals court agreed. Employers have a right to minimize workplace conflict and avoid liability under federal anti-discrimination laws, and that can mean "preserving a harmonious and efficient work environment," the court said. (Dixon v. Coburg Dairy Inc., No. 02-1266, 4th Cir., 2003)

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