Freedom of Speech and the Workplace

Is it a good idea to discuss controversial topics in the workplace? Can limits be placed on what employees discuss? What is most conducive to business operations? It varies greatly by employer, their organizational culture and tolerance levels. MSEC guidance, generally, is to clearly communicate to employees that the workplace is primarily for achieving organizational objectives. Casual conversations around the office cannot be monitored, but what is overheard by passerby’s matter. Communications must be professional and respectful in all formats when on company time. As such, conversations around controversial topics (religion, politics, money, etc.) are best left after business hours.

Starbucks is testing the limits of workplace speech with their initiative “Race Together”. Employees are encouraged to discuss race relations in the United States with their customers and presumably each other. This may be a noble idea- to stimulate dialog about an issue that impacts our society. But is it a good idea for a business? What if opinions are voiced that are diametrically opposed? What if passions run high, voices get raised and evolve into confrontations? What if a barista says to the customer “You’re wrong!” Isn’t the customer always right?

Many Starbucks customers will be impacted by overheard race conversations and service may slow as words are exchanged beyond the usual niceties of “Welcome” and “Have a nice day”. Only time will tell what impact this risky free speech experiment will have on Starbucks – and America.

Starbucks News Release

Harvard Business Review: