IceHrm Looking for an HR software for Your Company?
Masha Masha is a content developer at IceHrm. You can contact her at masha[at]

Balancing Workplace Safe Spaces with Free Expression

  Reading Time:

In the workplace, people often have little to no control over who they work with. People with different backgrounds, skills and opinions are brought together in a professional environment. The potential for conflict is high, and modern employers and managers face a dilemma.

On the one hand, employers must pay attention to the psychological safety and well-being of employees and try to prevent actual and perceived forms of harassment, bullying and discrimination. On the other hand, employees are encouraged to "bring their authentic selves to work and encourage them to raise their voices louder than ever before," as human resources expert Yashna Wahal puts it.

So how do you deal with this situation? How can you strike the balance between free expression and a safe space in the workplace?

We are here to share our insights with you. In this article, we'll share six effective strategies you can use to allow freedom of expression in the workplace while ensuring workplace safety.

What is freedom of speech?

Freedom of speech, also known as freedom of expression, means that you have the right not to be prosecuted for what you say. However, that doesn't mean that others are obligated to agree with what you say or that you don't face other consequences for your words.

The case of Maya Forstater v. Center for Global Development (CDG) in the United Kingdom is an example of what can happen when you do not respect your employees' freedom of speech. Maya Forstater was a visiting researcher at the CDG and published controversial gender-critical views on her personal X account (formerly Twitter). Shortly afterwards, the CDG decided not to extend her scholarship.

Forstater saw this as discrimination based on her beliefs and took the case to an employment tribunal. The court ruled in favor of CDG. However, in a landmark case, the British Labor Court of Appeal ruled in Forstater's favor. It found that Forstater's belief that "men cannot transform into women" is a protected philosophical belief under the UK's Equality Act 2010.

According to The Guardian, Judge Akhlaq Ur-Rahman Choudhury ruled that both Forstater's beliefs and those who contradict her "may be deeply offensive and even disturbing to many others, but they are beliefs that must be tolerated."

In light of this decision, the Employment Tribunal re-examined the case and concluded that CDG's treatment of Forstater was related to her protected beliefs and that CDG unfairly discriminated against her by not renewing her contract or fellowship.

Although this case was heard in the United Kingdom, it raises an interesting discussion about freedom of expression in the workplace in the United States, where discretionary termination is an employer right in many states.

The case raises a difficult question: Where is the line between respecting everyone's views and creating a safe space in the workplace? And where does the employer's responsibility lie in enforcing this limit?

Employees can't just say whatever they want, right?

You're right - they can't.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives U.S. citizens the freedom to express themselves and share their ideas without fear of punishment from the government. However, the First Amendment does not apply to private organizations.

Private employers are allowed to restrict freedom of expression in the workplace, especially if such freedom of expression constitutes an insult or disruption in the workplace.

As an employer, you have the right to establish rules and policies that ensure a productive and respectful work environment. This also includes what types of discussions are allowed in the workplace.

However, when you work for the federal government, your employees have more opportunities to express their opinions, as long as their thoughts do not create a conflict of interest, reveal classified information, or disrupt government operations. These individuals also enjoy greater separation between their thoughts as private citizens and as government employees.

What is a safe space in the workplace?

Creating a safe space in the workplace means creating an environment where everyone feels valued and has the opportunity to contribute. In a truly safe space, employees can express their different perspectives without fear of discrimination, criticism or harm. These spaces promote employees’ mental and emotional well-being.

You can create a safe space in the workplace by listening to employees, respecting their views, and encouraging open dialogue.

A safe space is not what you think it is

There are many misconceptions about safe spaces. It is not a safe space:

  • A place for hate speech. Employees cannot use the "free speech" shield to promote threatening or offensive speech - or other forms of harassment - based on prejudice.
  • A space where employees are protected from all dissenting opinions. Safe spaces do not protect workers from all opinions with which they disagree.
  • A concept that only applies to minorities. Safe spaces protect the right of everyone to express themselves freely without fear of harm - not just certain groups.
  • A place of absolute comfort. These spaces are not always comfortable as employees are still encouraged to have difficult but necessary conversations.

6 Strategies for Balancing Freedom of Expression and Safety in the Workplace

Bringing discriminatory opinions into the workplace is always a risk. It's not your job as an employer to try to change people's minds. Such attempts are time-consuming and likely to be unsuccessful.

Instead of trying to change individual opinions, create a culture where most employees feel free to speak their minds - to some extent.

That's how it works:

  1. Tell your employees exactly what you will and will not tolerate - and where
  2. Reinforce your policy with mandatory training
  3. Allow healthy conflict - and mediate when necessary
  4. Get your employees to adopt a “Think like Bernard” attitude.
  5. Encourage employee resource groups
  6. Measure motivation and culture in the workplace

1.Tell your employees exactly what you will and will not tolerate - and where

If your employees don't know what is acceptable in your company, they may inadvertently cross boundaries or feel unsafe about speaking up - resulting in a workplace that is neither open nor safe.

Clear guidelines are the solution. You create a shared understanding within your team so that everyone can communicate with each other with trust and respect.

Review your existing policy or create a new one and make sure it specifically identifies the language, behavior, and conversations that are unacceptable in your workplace. For example, you could specify that your company prohibits all forms of racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic statements - regardless of whether they are spoken or written.

Your policy must also explain the consequences of violating these norms - e.g. a warning, a suspension or a termination.

As human resources expert and social entrepreneur Ioana Andrei explains, your policy should also include "accurate definitions for terms such as 'discrimination,' 'harassment,' [and] 'hate speech.'" Go a step further and define these terms, as well as terms like “racism” and “homophobia.” This way, there is no confusion about what constitutes unacceptable speech and behavior in your workplace.

For example, your policy might say: "Racism is the unambiguous belief in the innate superiority of one race over another, which results in discrimination and prejudice. Our company has a zero-tolerance policy against racism and considers any use of slurs, jokes , racist language, discriminatory behavior or any action that contributes to a hostile environment based on race as a disciplinary offense."

To promote free expression within these parameters, you should explain in your policy what expression is permitted in your company - e.g. constructive criticism, professional opinions and expressions of religious beliefs.

Finally, your policy should define the term “workplace.” For example, does your policy cover workplace networking events at a local venue or only applies when employees are physically at work?

Consider what standards of language and behavior should apply in the following scenarios:
  • At the workplace, in the office or when working remotely.
  • At work-related events such as networking events, company parties and get-togethers.
  • At online workplaces such as WhatsApp groups or Slack conferences.
  • While driving to and from work with colleagues. This may apply to people carpooling, using public transportation, or otherwise traveling with colleagues.
2.Reinforce your policy with mandatory training

Once you have a solid policy in place, the next step is to conduct mandatory training on that policy - something many companies overlook. Training is key to ensuring your employees truly understand the limits of free expression in your workplace.

Your training content should cover your company's communication standards and core beliefs, and underscore your commitment to fostering a workplace culture that values open dialogue, diverse perspectives, and mutual respect.

To illustrate these points, consider including interactive elements in your training.

You could e.g. ask you to rate certain statements in the workplace as “OK” or “Not OK” - e.g. "Leadership roles require people who can regulate their emotions and work well under pressure" (OK) and "I just don't think women are suitable for leadership roles. They are too emotional and can't handle the pressure" (not OK ).

Once employees have responded, you can explain why the "Not OK" statements perpetuate stereotypes, undermine certain genders, reinforce harmful stereotypes, and ultimately create a discriminatory work environment.

You can also incorporate role-playing into the training to simulate workplace situations that can test the limits of freedom of expression.

For example, you could have an employee take on the role of a manager who overhears a conversation between two team members. One of them makes a derogatory remark about members of a particular religion by saying, "People who follow this religion lack common sense." The “leader” must then intervene, de-escalate the conversation and explain why it is unacceptable.

Such exercises help your employees understand how to handle sensitive situations in the workplace and give them the opportunity to practice dealing with sensitive topics in a safe environment.

3.Allow healthy conflict - and mediate when necessary

Harry Evans and Colm Foster, co-authors of Step Up: Lead in Six Moments that Matter, explain that encouraging healthy conflict "makes others feel respected and their ideas discussed rather than judged for their ideas." .This promotes a culture where different perspectives are valued and where everyone feels empowered to express their opinions openly.

To promote healthy conflict, you can:

  • Create controlled opportunities for discussion, e.g. during brainstorming sessions or team meetings. You can present different perspectives and encourage employees to contribute their thoughts. You could even schedule regular “challenge meetings” specifically designed to discuss important ideas and topics in the workplace.
  • Promote the “Six Thinking Hats” method. This is a method of parallel thinking developed by Edward de Bono in which the individual approaches an idea from six "directions" - positive, negative, with emotions in mind, with facts in mind, with new ideas in mind and Finally, from the “big picture” perspective. This is a highly successful tactic for encouraging constructive conflict and respectfully handling disagreements in the workplace.
  • Teach your employees to actively listen - Listen to understand rather than react. For example, you can tell employees to summarize what they heard (e.g., "I hear that you...") before responding. In this way, they learn to recognize different points of view with respect for the speaker, even if they disagree.

Remember that healthy conflict does not mean allowing discussions to escalate into emotional outbursts or aggressive behavior. You need to have a strategy in place for when disagreements become heated - e.g. Such as when conversations become pedantic, employees raise their voices, or team members start using language that violates your free speech policies, such as: Insults. This would cross the line from healthy debate to bullying, harassment or discrimination - a violation of free speech and the destruction of safe space in the workplace.

The best strategy is to mediate when disagreements veer into unhealthy areas.

Join the conversation and avoid taking sides. Explain that while both employees are entitled to their opinions, work is not the place to make personal attacks, put emotions above professional behavior, or use confrontational or disrespectful language. Additionally, remind employees of the consequences of violating your company's free speech policies.

4.Let your employees think “like Bernard.”

Bernard Meltzer was an American radio host from 1967-90. He is quoted as saying: "Before you speak, ask yourself whether what you want to say is true, kind, necessary and helpful. If the answer is no, perhaps what you want to say should be left unsaid ."

This approach strikes a perfect balance between free expression and maintaining a safe work environment as it promotes mindful communication. Workers have the freedom to express their opinions, but also know how to take responsibility for how their words might affect others if they share them. Overall, this promotes a culture of conscious and considerate speaking.

Encourage your employees to adopt this stance in the workplace, either casually through verbal announcements or admonitions, or by incorporating it into your free speech policy. You should also encourage managers and senior managers to lead by example and model the “Think like Bernard” approach in all interactions with employees.

5.Encourage employee resource groups

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are a great way to promote freedom of expression and create a safe space in your workplace. These are voluntary groups that employees join because of shared experiences or characteristics. For example, working parents, veterans, employees under 35, or LGBTQ+ employees can form their own ERGs.

Encourage your employees to create and join ERGs to provide themselves and others with a safe environment to express themselves freely, receive support, promote professional development, and help with networking.

It's not just employees who benefit from ERGs. ERGs help foster a more inclusive workplace culture that makes employees feel like their presence is valued at your company. People who feel seen and heard at work are more likely to stay with the company long-term, which increases loyalty to the company and saves you the costs of recruiting employees to counteract turnover.

6.Hire the right people

The case of Forstater v. CDG teaches us that beliefs can be viewed as valid even if we personally find them offensive.

However, in some workplaces, certain beliefs are fundamentally harmful to the company's culture and goals. For example, you couldn't employ a manager at a women's aid organization who didn't recognize that women deserve equal rights.

The solution? Hire people without beliefs that could harm your workplace and your company's goals.

We recommend that you avoid resume screening (which is outdated, time-consuming, prone to bias, and does not give you a complete picture of a candidate) and instead use talent assessments to evaluate applicants. These can help you assess hard and soft skills as well as motivation, values and ability to make a positive contribution to your workplace culture.

We particularly recommend offering culture-specific tests and personality tests (like those from IceHrm) to all applicants. This will help you determine how each individual's values align with those of your company and whether their behavioral tendencies align with what you want to bring to your team.

Of course, there is no 100% sure way to determine whether an applicant has discriminatory beliefs that could upset the balance between free expression and a safe space in the workplace. However, talent assessments can help you determine whether a candidate's values fundamentally align with yours - a great place to start!

Why is balance necessary?

Still not convinced you need to strike a balance? Think again. Free speech in the workplace and safety in the workplace are both important - and here's why.

The importance of free expression in the workplace

Allowing employees to express their opinions within certain limits creates a culture of openness and transparency. Free expression also promotes creativity, problem solving and conflict resolution - all important aspects of a healthy and dynamic workplace.

Additionally, fostering a culture of free expression can increase employee engagement and satisfaction. Employees are more likely to engage in their work when they feel like their opinions matter and they have a voice in the company.

Companies with high employee engagement are 21% more profitable than those with disengaged employees. According to Gallup, companies that rank in the top 20% for employee retention also experience 41% less absenteeism and 59% less turnover - a significant factor considering that it costs nearly $5,000 to hire a new employee.

The importance of safe spaces in the workplace

You are responsible for creating a safe and inclusive work environment for all employees. This is important for your team's well-being and happiness as well as your company's bottom line and reputation.

Failure to create an inclusive and supportive work environment can result in discrimination claims that can result in an unlimited fine in court. Consider the case of EEOC v. Dart Energy Corp, in which the EEOC sued Dart Energy Corp for $630,000 plus injunctive relief for failing to provide a work environment that supported Black, Hispanic and Native American employees.

A lawsuit of this magnitude is damaging enough for a large company and would be catastrophic - both financially and reputationally - for a small company.

In addition, many employees find workplaces without safe spaces harmful. Research has shown that a toxic work environment is one of the top reasons US workers leave their jobs. In fact, this was the driving factor behind the major wave of layoffs that began in 2021.

The average cost to replace an employee is $30,000 to $40,000 for an employee earning $60,000 - can you really afford not to have a secure job?

Not only do safe spaces combat toxicity, save money, and protect your reputation, but they also increase employee productivity and decision-making. A LinkedIn study found that inclusive teams are 35% more productive than non-inclusive teams and make better decisions 87% of the time.

No matter how you look at it, there is no downside to creating a safe space in your organization.

The balancing act between freedom of expression and safety in the workplace is difficult - but possible

There is no guarantee that offensive opinions will not enter the workplace. However, you can employ strategies to protect your employees from the harmful views of their colleagues and create an inclusive workplace culture - all while allowing free expression in the workplace.

Setting clear parameters for what is unacceptable, allowing for healthy conflict, and encouraging employees to "think like Bernard" can help. You can also assess talent to determine whether a candidate's beliefs and values align with those of your company before hiring them.

Striking a balance between free speech and workplace safety is vital. Explore strategies to foster openness while maintaining a supportive environment. Consider tools like IceHrm for hiring the right talent.

The Most Important HR Skills and How to Master Them

The most important HR skills include organizational skills for managing various tasks and deadlines, communication skills for clear and effective interaction, confidentiality skills for handling sensitive information, and adaptability skills for managing change and unpredictability....

Exploring HRIS Systems: Types and Benefits

Explore the five types of HRIS systems revolutionizing HR management. From operational to strategic, find the perfect fit for your company's needs....

IceHrm   Create your IceHrm, installation today.