How much freedom is too much freedom?

By: Kate Horstead

Date: 27 October 2009

Nasty Nick Griffin’s much-publicised appearance on Question Time raised a lot of questions, namely about democracy and freedom of speech, and about how much freedom is too much when your views just happen to be fascist.

Pay attention employers, because these uncomfortable questions may be closer to home than you think.

The media has started its own debate over the BBC’s invitation to Griffin to join other, mainstream politicians on its flagship current affairs programme; The Guardian claims the BNP is losing the support of even its own loyalists over Griffin’s performance, while The Telegraph insists the programme has given the party a platform from which to ensnare new supporters.

Either way, the BNP has upset and enraged a lot of people in the last few days alone, with its anti-almost-everybody viewpoints. Democracy is democracy, and you can’t ignore that more than a handful of people are putting their crosses in the BNP box, but it is a challenge for every one of us to decide how to deal with this.

Look a little deeper and there are parallels here with the workplace. How far should you allow your employees to discuss their religious, social or political views in the workplace, if there is a risk that they could seriously upset other people with them?

Luckily, as a business owner, there is a more clearly defined line for you to draw, partly because your employees have not been elected or recruited on their personal policies, although healthy debate can benefit your business in many ways.

While your staff obviously have a human right to manifest their beliefs and express their opinions, you must keep a beady eye out to ensure that what they express does not discriminate against or undermine other employees. It may be unlikely that you have a BNP activist in your midst, but any viewpoint that undermines someone based on their gender, age, race or religion, or simply makes them feel uncomfortable, can have serious consequences.

Aside from a dent in your team’s morale, constant controversial comments or an over-zealous employee trying to convert people to their religion or cause can lead to staff absence or legal claims of discrimination or harassment, both of which can be expensive and damaging.

Speaking to Acas equality specialist, Steve Williams, recently, I found out that employers can protect their business from these perils by including some pointers in their HR policy, and by having a quiet word with anyone that breaches them.

“Emphasise that discussion is welcome but that it must not be used to oppress or discriminate against other staff,” he adds. “Spell it out — for example, it is acceptable for an employee to mention that they go to church or campaign for the Green Party, but if they start pressurising other people, that isn’t.”

On the bright side, Williams told me that most employees have an “innate sense” of where the line should be drawn with regard to other people’s feelings, and would soon apologise if they realised they had overstepped it. If we are to take his word for it, there’s a good chance you will never be faced with this complex problem. Nevertheless, in the face of an increasingly re-politicised population, you should be well-prepared.

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