Freedom of Expression
Last week I blogged about the cancel culture in the workplace and how corporations and their employers should react when a group of workers wants to cancel an employee(ees). This week I drill down on the idea that the cancel culture portends conflicts ahead for employers that need to be kept in check.
Freedom of expression is a bedrock of American society and so should employees’ rights to express their opinions on divisive issues, the risks posed to organizations, and the threats of what some call an emergent cancel culture --- where certain opinions are deemed hostile to the mainstream and should be dismissed or disallowed.
Writing in Thomson Reuters Regulatory Intelligence, Henry Engler says some features emerge as the boundaries between an employees’ private and work lives have become more blurred. Social media has contributed to an environment where companies can now monitor much of what employees say and do around the clock. Some argue that such monitoring has gone too far.
“Workers need freedom of expression without having their employers monitoring their off-duty speech or having to worry about getting fired for what they say on social media and other places outside work,” explains Elizabeth Anderson, chair of the University of Michigan’s department of philosophy. “It is, in general, none of the firm’s business what ordinary workers say when they are not on the job or interacting with co-workers.” To address these issues, corporations should establish that employees have “a right not to be fired for what they say off-duty to people other than their co-workers,” Anderson says, adding that corporations would probably prefer not to be in a position where they feel compelled to monitor employees at work and in their private lives.
Just how companies decide whom to punish and for what reasons also becomes increasingly murky in today’s environment. Arbitrariness in citing some employees for speech that is considered against the firm’s social policies could prompt increased legal liabilities for organizations. For example, if an employee is fired because of views posted on a public blog, what is to say others have not posted similar views but haven’t been caught? The question reinforces Anderson’s belief that corporations will be increasingly challenged when confronted by employees who have been reprimanded or fired for their views.
Costs and Benefits
As I pointed out last week, one way to examine the ethics of the cancel culture is to evaluate the pros and cons of the behavior. Why do some people say it is a good practice?
- Expressing oneself by taking others to task is part of the democratic process and free speech.
- Cancelling others is a manifestation of holding others accountable for their behaviors.
- Calling-out is one way to challenge provocateurs, who deliberately hurt others, or powerful people beyond our reach.
Those who argue against it make the following points.
- Canceling someone is an attempt to stifle their free speech rights.
- Tweeting against others in anger begets more anger and can lead to a more serious practices such as bullying.
- Canceling raises the question of whether we should cancel everyone with whom we disagree? Where should the line be drawn or is it even possible to do so?
The cancel culture is a logical extension of political correctness and being “woke, a common term of contempt among some who oppose the movements it is associated with, or believe the issues are exaggerated. It is sometimes used to mock or treat supporters of those movements as children. Some have criticized subscribers to woke views of being racist; adding identity politics is extremely racist.
Cancelling an employee because of their words or actions is an ethical slippery slope. How can we draw a line between a legitimate action by an employer and stifling free speech? It is difficult to do know. Employers must err on the side of caution when deciding what to do about the cancel culture in the workplace.
Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on May 25, 2021. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.