Once upon a time in the pre-twitter age, a Melbourne University academic was arrested at an Anzac day demonstration near the Shrine of Remembrance.
She was one of a group of women protesting about rape and sexual assault as weapons of war. Images of her being arrested and thrown into the back of a paddy van were broadcast on the nightly news.
The next day she was back at work teaching my history class. Life went on in a way that is unimaginable now.
A funny thing happened on the way to the flexible workplace: employers started to regulate and restrict their employees’ political activities and expression.
Journalists often targeted
Angela Williamson has just settled with Cricket Australia in her unlawful dismissal case, brought in response to her firing after she tweeted
about abortion rights. But Ms Williamson is merely the latest in a long line.
SBS sports journalist Scott McIntyre lost his job after sending out tweets about Anzac Day.
On 11 May 2018, African American television journalist Lisa Cooper was suspended from work after sharing an article about gender and race published by Australian writer Ruby Hamad.
Free speech unless it hurts the brand
In his 2012 book The Moral Limits of Markets, prominent US philosopher Michael Sandel argues that in recent decades, the West has been transformed from a market economy to a market society in which community values are increasingly subjugated to those
of the market.
The right of employees to express their political views and participate in democratic debate is bumping up against companies’ zeal for protecting their brands. The employees are coming off second best.
More than ever before, jobs and careers are at risk of being sacrificed to the whims of the burgeoning brand management industry.
“Brand managers” are also professional catastrophists; easily triggered into damage control at the first sign of adverse media coverage.
Controversy is perceived as a threat to the brand. The threat must be removed. As organisations ramp up their investment in branding, more employees are losing their jobs for expressing views which are said to be inconsistent with company values.
Academic freedom curtailed
The corporatisation of universities over the last 30 years neatly illustrates Sandel’s argument.
Australian universities are increasingly managed by executives on million dollar-plus salaries while employing most staff on casual and other precarious work arrangements.
Their marketing and communications departments are deployed in the intense competition for funding, prestige and students. The brand must be protected at almost any cost — including at the expense of academic freedom.
In June 2016, Roz Ward, a left-wing academic, posted an image of a rainbow flag on her Facebook account with the flippant text: “Now we just need to get rid of the racist Australian flag on top of state parliament and get a red one up there and my work
In response, Ms Ward was suspended by the university pending a full disciplinary investigation. In the face of a lawsuit and public pressure, the university ultimately buckled and lifted the suspension. Other outspoken academics have not been so fortunate.
Policing workers is a time-held practice
To suggest that there was ever a carefree nirvana for employees is folly. After all, employment is a relationship that derived from master and servant. Long before McCarthyism destroyed the lives of many American workers, Ford Motor Company’s Sociology
Department policed the lives of thousands of employees with random home inspections.
Employees were assessed according to hygiene, cleanliness and fidelity to American values.
That was in 1913.
Australian public servants have never enjoyed freedom of speech. They are still required to be “apolitical”. Current APS policy mandates “nuanced and thoughtful” commentary and being “moderate” in language while focussing on facts — whether at work or
What about discrimination laws?
In the late 1980s, laws were introduced seeking to protect employees from discrimination based on political opinion. How then are employers able to fire employees for expressing political opinions?
Put simply, in the last decade we have all signed employment contracts promising not to communicate anything that might embarrass our employer. A typical employment contract requires an employee to promise they will abide by company policies, as varied
from time to time.
Social media policies — a staple of every workplace — tend to require employees not to communicate on social media in a way that could harm the reputation of their employer.
The SBS social media policy states:
“While SBS employees have the right to make public comment and to enter into public debate in their personal capacity, it is important to ensure that SBS is not brought into disrepute. Individuals should consider how their posts will be perceived by the
community […] These standards therefore apply to your professional and your personal use of social media.”
In recent cases, controversy has been sufficient to persuade an employer it has been brought “into disrepute”. It’s all in the perception. Employers are increasingly sacking staff where they perceive that the brand is “damaged”.
Brands survive controversy, employees don’t
Measuring brand damage is more intuition than science, but, as the fortunes of James Hardie and Volkswagen demonstrate, brands are far more likely to shrug off the effects of controversy than an employee sacked for breaching the social media policy.
A brand can’t experience suffering in the way that a sacked employee does.
When we sign an employment contract, are we inadvertently relinquishing our rights to participate in democratic debate in favour of a 24/7 role as brand ambassador for the company?
The odds favour employers
The right of employees to engage in political communication will likely continue to be tested in our courts.
Former public servant Michaela Banerji is off to the High Court following her dismissal for tweeting criticism of federal immigration policy, using a pseudonymous account. Ms Banerji will argue that the Constitution protects her right to free speech.
This tussle is not going away, but in a labour market where workers are increasingly under-employed, insecure and unable to obtain a pay rise, the odds clearly favour employers.
This article originally appeared on ABC News.