Free Speech? What would you do?

Let’s say you own a small software development company. Welcome the new employeeGenerally, you have about a dozen employees and about 50 independent contractors worldwide. Your team in town reflects the UN in nationalities.

The new employee arrives. Your practice has been to send a company-wide email welcoming that employee.

Recently, however, you have asked each new person if they would write a couple of sentences about themselves covering such things as, but limited to, hobbies, interests, PC or Mac, etc.  So far, that’s worked out well and everyone seems to enjoy the process of getting to know the new folks.

The newest employee writes the following:

“My wife and I love going to church. We spend one evening a week going to a Bible Study; soup kitchens take up two nights a week, and Friday night we minister to the homeless.  If you want to join us in the volunteer work, please let me know.  I play softball in the church league; my wife organizes babysitting for the other player’s wives so they can cheer for their husbands.  We love the XXXX area and I look forward to getting to know everyone here.”

What should you do?

A.   Send the message as is: Freedom of Speech should rule.

B.   Edit the church references:  this is a business not a social/religious club.

C.   Ask the employee to submit a new write-up suggesting that religious references may be offensive to the mixed nationalities employed.

D.   Immediately abandon the practice of each person writing a “getting to know me” email.

E.   OTHER: __________What would you do? ________

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13 Responses

  1. Tough one. I’d abandon the practice of letting employees write their own blather — not because of the religious reference but because their writing is generally poor! Setting that aside, whether to include religious references depends on the ethos of the business.

    I once worked at an ad agency whose owner was openly Christian and hired lots of talent who felt comfy in that environment. Ironically, I was not anywhere near any of that in those days. But I wanted to work there, so put up with the workplace environment. Last laugh on me: I’m now a baptized Christian and openly write/talk about it in all sorts of settings, although I try not to offend by being annoying about my faith. I focus on being annoying about other stuff, like people’s egregious spelling, grammar and syntax!

  2. Unless your request to the employees specified that they refrain from religious or political opinions or activities, I think the writer did exactly as asked. If I’m given the broad parameters of “hobbies & interests” and most, if not all, of my hobbies and interests revolve around church related activities, that’s what you’re going to get.

    However, I agree with Meredith…D. I think it’s just a bad practice to ask everyone to “chime in”. Unless you WANT to maintain a position as the “thought police” for your company, lol. Also, are you willing to deal with the repercussions if it’s a topic that not as “bash friendly” as religion? What if the invitation is to a gay bar? What if their “hobby” is extreme animal rights activism? I sure wouldn’t want to be the “editor” on file when the ACLU comes a’calling.

    One company, one voice.

    Or, maybe I’m just a control freak.

    -Perry

    • Yes, freedom of speech opens a Pandora’s box. Sometimes freedom FROM speech is the better choice at work. Would not want to be the “editor” in my story’s scenario!

  3. I choose D – When you ask someone to tell about themselves – they do. The HR department could announce a new hire. As one works in the place they will find their niche and their common interests with fellow workers. The time spent away from work is something you share with friends……

  4. The employee did what was asked. I wouldn’t ask the employee to change anything they said, but I would asked them to add a couple of sentences about any interests they might have outside of church.

    If the purpose is to help employees get to know each other and find common interests, this request seems reasonable.

    To throw a grenade into the circle, I’m not so sure we should expect to have freedom of speech at every place of employment we might be at. Employers often have to struggle with keeping a group of people with diverse backgrounds cohesive and focused on the tat hand.

    • That is a big grenade – BANG. Where does freedom begin and end? With diversity comes different views, that’s for sure. Does a company want to nurture personal diversity or does it want to nurture conformity to a “company standard” absent political, religious, moral views? On the other hand, common interests encourage employees to become more than workers. As Meredith noted, it depends on the company ethos – a subject often ignored in leadership and management.

  5. I would choose option E – other: because we asked for personal background, interests and such and this is what the employee gave. The second sentence is where I see a conflict because he is using it as a forum for recruiting volunteers and that should not be allowed. So I would remove that sentence and the part about his wife organizing babysitting services since we do not know or care whether she gets paid for this and don’t want to advertise her business here also. The rest is what we asked for.

    • Interesting…thank you. I like the distinction you have made: it makes a difference. While still allowing expression of interests, it draws a line at generating participation – even volunteering – and the potential for what might be interrupted as “Advertising” the wife’s babysitting service.

  6. I would choose “E.” It’s the first I’ve heard of this sort of practice, but it’s one I would not have initiated for the following reasons:
    (1) The fabric of the company relevant to multiple nationalities and multiple global partners implies many different cultural norms that eventually would invite an unhealthy and potentially aggressive response to such a practice. It doesn’t take much to motivate someone, who might have their faith or their culture as a personal “hot button” and doesn’t need much of a reason to push it.
    (2) It doesn’t make sense to invite someone brand new to the organization to contribute in any kind of open forum until you get to know them and they get to know your company. Aside from the fact that that they may not be very articulate in written form, and though they may have done very well through the interview phase, we all know that it takes that first few days or weeks before the “real new hire really shows up.”

    • Thank you, Maxie. The source of this “case” does puzzle me since I would have thought they (the company) would have thought through several issues, not the least of which are the two big ones about which you write.

  7. I would send the message as is. There is nothing wrong with attending church and doing what you love for God.

  8. Hey Griff, I say A&D&E. This person was asked to share about their hobbies and interests and that is what they did, however I would let them know that you think it is an inappropriate time to invite people to volunteer with them, and gently remind them that would be something better handled in a one on one situation outside of work so as not to make people feel uncomfortable. I would let the person know that I would omit that part and compliment them on their desire to be helpful to others or something. Other than that comment I think it is an appropriate statement if the person wants to share that much personal information.

  9. Thanks, Talitha. The”volunteer” offer seems a bit over the line and eliminating seems to be the right choice – among others 🙂 – I appreciate you taking the time to respond.

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