Recent freedom-of-speech cases involving Israel Folau, Officeworks and Qantas (among others) got me thinking about the shifting ground beneath our feet, and the way in which the business world is changing before our eyes.
Once, the concepts of freedom of speech, and freedom of religion, did not really encroach on the Australian workplace. Well, to some extent they did but – generally speaking – businesses and their employees went about their day-to-day work, the businesses producing whatever it is they produced and their employees assisting in that process.
But the goalposts have moved – as we’ve seen with these recent high-profile cases.
They have caused us all to ponder the questions: just how far should corporations go in protecting or promoting the individual freedoms, preferences and views of their workers? Should employees be allowed to express their own political views in the workplace? How far should companies go in promoting and pushing a particular social cause? What if many employees disagree with that cause? How do we judge what is offensive and what is just robust debate?
They are questions that don’t have an easy answer. And I think they will present a major challenge for corporate affairs and reputation leaders in the years ahead: how to balance these competing interests and ‘rights’ to achieve a reasonable outcome.
As we know, Folau’s $5 million Rugby Australia contract was torn up when he refused to take down an Instagram post that quoted Bible scripture and said “hell awaits” homosexuals and other sinners.
An Officeworks employee in Sydney earlier this year refused to print a Conservative National Party candidate’s campaign literature that discussed Islam’s “vile sharia law”. The employee said it was “defamatory to Islamics”; the customer claims staff were reading his material without his permission.
Then there’s Qantas, ANZ and the Australian Football League – three organisations which have made very public and vocal advocacy for causes such as same-sex marriage. AFL House, for example, was lit up in the colours of the rainbow ahead of the marriage equality vote.
Some might ask: is it their role to push their social beliefs – no matter how commendable – on to the community? Aren’t they just an airline, bank and sporting organisation, respectively, who should be confining their efforts to those particular areas?
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce says most definitely not. He says he put a significant amount of his own money into the ‘yes’ campaign for same-sex marriage and Qantas also campaigned hard on the issue. “I think corporate Australia, if it’s to fix the reputations it has out there, needs to be vocal on social issues,” he said. “That’s what good businesses do.”
As a corporation (and indeed as an individual), ethical reputation is your most valuable asset.
Where once a business might have tolerated Folau’s social media posts, or sacked an employee who felt aggrieved enough to refuse to serve a customer, now things are not so cut and dried. There are subtle nuances and sensitivities at play and CA leaders will have to learn to negotiate this minefield of competing rights, responsibilities, privileges and freedoms.
By Anna Whitlam, Managing Director of Anna Whitlam People and Non-Executive Director of Commtract. This article was originally published on LinkedIn here.
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