Friday, 4 June 2010

Freedom of speech in the workplace?

Nearly 3000 years ago, the Greek philosopher Homer wrote in ‘The Iliad’ that ‘to speak his thoughts is every freeman’s right’.   Now established in English case law since 1999 is that freedom of speech could not be limited to the inoffensive but extended also to ‘the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome, and the provocative, as long as such speech did not tend to provoke violence’.  Brilliant.  Or is it?
In organisations can we really allow our people the opportunity to say what they want?  To air their views in public whenever they want?  If we did, it could be disastrous.  We might find people turning up to work with a small plastic box which, when flipped over, is a perfect one-person stage upon which they can stand and address anyone that cares to listen.  Clive, the handyman stands on his toolbox and publicly decries those that have blocked his toilets for the third time this week.  Mary in accounts puts up her stage in the corner of the shop floor and rants at all those who seem unable to fill out an expenses claim form on time.  Barry in IT...  sends an e mail picture of himself standing on a box with a message under it, usually with some Star Wars reference.
Is this too frightening? 
Let’s consider the benefits.  Everyone in your organisation would feel that they can have their opinions heard by anyone that cares to listen.  This means you can bring all those gripes and grumbles out into the open where they can be addressed.  It would spark debate over the issues which are important to people.  There is obviously the right to reply, agreeing with the orator or suggesting improvements or actions.  This could be a very powerful vehicle for change.  Don’t forget you can say anything from your platform - why not thank someone for their great work, praise achievement or applaud improvement?
I know of one MD who does just this.  He heads out regularly around his factories with his box from which to carry out impromptu discussions with anyone who happens to be able to listen.  People join in the debates and have a lot of fun.  Direct, personal, face to face dialogue between the leader and the masses.
There is just one historical precedent that you need to be aware of before you rush off and buy your rostrum.  Socrates, arguably the father of philosophy, enjoyed this type of oratory and debate in the forum of Athens.  After many years of his antics he was poisoned to death. Now that’s what I call heckling!

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