Free Speech Standards at Work are…Inconsistent

Whether or not you can speak up depends on whether you’re the one in power.

The idea of free, unfettered speech is under the microscope on a number of fronts lately. In addition to The Letter, which seems to confuse “freedom of speech” with “freedom of access to any platform free of consequences,” there’s also new instances of concern that speaking your mind politically or reacting negatively to a political or social story could be bad for your career.

Of course that’s only if you’re not the one in charge of a company or industry.

In one corner you have the president of Goya Foods, who has come under fire for his praising of President Trump, with some calling for a boycott of the brand’s products. Conservatives, of course, see such a boycott or other repercussions as part of an organized and maybe even illegal effort by The Left to tear down Trump and other Republicans. Anyone should be able to say what they like, and any attempts to stifle that is a catastrophic travesty the likes of which the Republic has ne’ertofore seen.

In the other corner, you have stories like this recent one, about an ESPN journalist suspended over using the F-word in a private email to a U.S. Senator regarding the NBA’s response to democracy protests in Hong Kong, itself an issue rife with concerns over free speech and corporate regulation.

And in a third corner, you have the president himself, who would like to not only actively suppress independent journalism but also publicly criticizes countless companies – most recently NASCAR – any time they take any stance counter to the one he prefers. The consequences of Trump tweeting negatively about a company can have disastrous results.

So, not to be too simplistic about the issue, which is it? Should people face non-governmental consequences for their speech or should such speech come with impunity? It seems the answer depends on which side you’re on politically and, importantly, if you’re a Lord or a Serf in your particular capitalism fiefdom.

If you’re a CEO or other executive, you apparently can say what you want. Throw as many fundraisers as you like for politicians that espouse racism or sexism and who want to continue paying homage to the Confederacy. Anyone who organizes a boycott is trying, it seems, to destroy a perfectly good company because someone in charge voices an opinion.

Never mind, of course, that these free market advocates don’t recognize the free market when it’s actually in action. People deciding, as a group or individually, to support or reject a brand because of their stated stance on a social or political issue is the very definition of the market’s freedom. In fact, it’s the same market freedom that had Republican’s pressuring country radio stations to take Dixie Chicks (now just The Chicks) records off the radio. More recently, there was a call for a boycott of Nike after it signed Colin Kaepernick to an endorsement contract.

If you’re a line worker, though, the rules seem to be different. Very different. The First Amendment doesn’t apply to most nongovernmental employees, and jobs are “at-will” where workers can be fired for any non-protected reason. People can be fired because of what they Tweet, what protests they take part in or anything else and the company can officially say they were let go because of some other work-related reason, even if it’s not accurate.

To be clear, I don’t think people should lose their jobs for political speech or beliefs. Even racists need jobs. But if we’re establishing a system where companies can claim it’s within their moral or religious rights to withhold birth control coverage from employees, maybe it should also be allowed for companies to fire someone because they marched with a bunch of Nazis in Charlottesville.

At the moment, the balance of power seems skewed. You can’t claim people are free to vote with their wallets and with their feet and their choices in one instance and then call foul when they do the same thing in a way you disagree with. And you can’t claim a company is within its rights to fire someone for their beliefs but then complain when there are calls for similar consequences against an executive. Or, at least, you shouldn’t, unless of course your true ideology isn’t free speech but the protection of the powerful and the maintaining of a status quo where individuals have less voice in society than those with access to the levels of power.

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The Establishment Would Like to Finally Win Now

We’re in the Endgame now.

If you’re someone who pays even a little attention to the world of media and media criticism, you’ve probably already read The Letter.

Titled “A Letter On Justice and Debate” and published in Harper’s, the letter is signed by scores of well-known creatives and writers, and essentially argues the world has become unfair. It’s too easy for an angry mob of politically correct individuals, the letter states, to “cancel” well-meaning writers, editors and others simply because they espouse a belief that runs contrary to current conventional wisdom.

Many others have pointed out the various problems with the points put forward in the letter, including that it is filled with straw man arguments, poorly-constructed logic and, most importantly, a desire by the signatories to no longer be subject to any sort of accountability by the public. It holds free speech as the ultimate positive, and sees any criticism as an attempt to stifle that, unaware that seeking to be free from critique or consequence is itself a stifling of others’ speech.

The Letter did not appear out of the blue. It comes after a number of editors and writers have resigned or been let go for allowing editorials that have implicitly or explicitly sanctioned or encouraged violent crackdowns on peaceful protestors, excused or approved of racist, anti-Semetic or anti-LGBTQ policies and ideologies and more, all of which have been roundly and rightly criticized. The targets of these critiques have mostly been employed at large, national publications or are internationally-famous brand names.

Even discounting these recent episodes, the push to keep legacy media free from the voices of the people is one that dates back at least 20 years and highlights one of the key issues dividing “mainstream” media and the “new” media that emerged at the beginning of the millennium.

Big newspapers and magazines were slow in the early days to adopt new online features such as comments that were native to and pervasive on blogs. When they did it was something they struggled with, unsure of who was responsible for moderation (the writer or a web manager?), what those moderation policies should be and how such a feature fit into their overall brand identity. People could always write letters to the editor, but those were filtered before publication where comments were often public immediately.

Some found sustainable ways to allow for public commenting in-house but many either shut down the comments feature completely, restricted usage to people who registered or, later on, outsourced it to Facebook. But the issue remained that being exposed to the public’s feedback was something those in charge were uncomfortable with and didn’t know how to react to.

That problem has only become more pervasive as on-domain comments gave way to off-site social media, a shift that decentralized the conversation and therefore control. Now people could say whatever they wanted on their own platforms and there was little the traditional gatekeepers could do about it.

Being subject to this kind of unfiltered response system is new and, quite frankly, disconcerting to many of these folks. They see themselves in the business of opinion-making and hold the unfortunate belief that any opinion is worth discussing because without it they would be unable to fill their column inches. “We’re just asking questions” is a common response when someone receives push back, a tactic used to free themselves from any responsibility for their actions.

Not all opinions are worth discussing, and saying that bringing fringe or dangerous beliefs to the forefront in the interest of public awareness belies the real damage that action can do to vulnerable populations.

Most importantly, being subject to feedback – even negative feedback – is not the same as being denied First Amendment rights. The same is true when someone loses their vaunted position as a professional editorialist at a major newspaper. Their speech is not being denied, they are simply being told their opinions have been found to be objectionable and are no longer welcome at Publication X. They are still free to found another outlet or create their own if they so choose.

There is little room for such nuance or reality in this conversation, though. Those who have made careers of sharing their opinions frequently command salaries well above the journalists and reporters who have been laid off in cost-cutting measures taken by private equity or other profit-minded owners, opinions that are tolerated because they bring in more attention and traffic than hard news, even with those opinions are counter to the public good. They have been free from any sort of repercussions for those opinions for so long that any move in that direction immediately feels like oppression.

It’s a journey we’ve been on for 20 years now. It started when online comments were too hard to manage. Now the tactic has shifted from “well remove comments from the site to” a struggle against “cancel culture” that benefits in many ways from being so hard to define it allows them to point to almost anything as an example of the problems they face.

Meanwhile important or relevant voices are actually silenced because they aren’t allowed to report on an issue they might be affected by. Or workers are punished by their employers for posting opinions on social media that run counter to that company’s interests. Or freelancers are rejected because they once dared to criticize the publication they are pitching.

Whatever the case, this feels like a move meant to finally bring the struggle between gatekeepers and gatebreakers to a conclusion. The new private equity and hedge fund owners of many media companies see this as a risk to their investment and will continue seeking ways to squash those risks. Free speech isn’t a goal but a threat.

Corporate Speak is Useful, Unless It Isn’t

There are lots of reasons to dislike jargon, and lots of reasons to use it.

Every industry has its own unique set of terminology. The same goes for every company, and often every department within a company. If you say “WINUS” to someone in Industry A, it’s likely going to mean something very different than when you say it to someone in Industry B. The result may be somewhere between confusion and actual problems, as the different definitions mean the two parties are literally speaking a different language.

It’s true that buzzwords and jargon are often annoying. And yes, it frequently devolves into “garbage language” that is overly simplistic and meaningless, but as with most things there are instances where such corporate, business-level terminology are useful and contribute positively to both productivity and culture just as there are times where it is, without doubt, the worst.

The Upsides

Words are, at their most basic level, simply a shared set of symbols we have agreed upon to convey different meanings. Just like a dollar bill represents some unit of value, the phrase “dollar bill” is how we’ve decided to share information about that physical object.

Many corporate or other work environments simply have their own sub-dialects, much like any region of the country or even city. A famous example is the usage of Coke, soda or pop in different locales to all mean the same thing: A sugary, carbonated drink, not necessarily the Coca-Cola brand.

These sub-dialects are in many cases extremely useful and aid in productivity. When someone says they need to go “check the T-8” it’s hoped most everyone understands they mean “the T-8B Hydro-bumper” or whatever the full name of the machine is. “T-8” has been developed informally as a shorthand because it saves a small amount of time and is easier to say while conveying the same general information.

Similarly, such jargon reduces the complexity of ideas within the community because everyone is assumed to be working from the same foundation of knowledge.

Imagine someone in an office saying “the index is up three indicators.” Such a declaration assumes the recipient understands what’s meant by “indicators” and has some context for how much of a change an increase of three is, as well as whether “up” is a positive or negative direction. There’s no need here to explain the taxonomy of each element of the sentence because there is, again, shared understanding and background, making communication more efficient.

Both of those help create a sense of community within the subculture. They are united in their mission and the language helps solidify that, creating a sense of being in this together.

Unfortunately, those same points too often are taken to such extremes in practice that they can become problems, leading us to

The Downsides

In the hands of some people, the kind of subculture-specific terminology that develops in a workplace has the potential to become a negative factor, one that creates more problems than it solves.

Instead of clarifying issues or ideas, specific jargon can obscure meaning and intent, using vague words and phrases that introduce uncertainty into the conversation and create confusion. This is particularly problematic when people from two subcultures are trying to communicate, and words that might be common between them actually have vastly different meanings in their unique contexts.

This is an issue even within a single environment because some people are no more careful about their use of jargon and buzzwords than they are any other form of language. An individual who throws around in-house terminology without a full understanding of what that means is creating problems and hampering other people’s productivity as they have to spend extra time deciphering or decoding what they’ve been told.

Sometimes the same kind of individual is trying to use that language to disguise their own shortcomings or issues. Throwing around a bunch of buzzwords – whether it’s from a common in-house taxonomy or from terms they’ve picked up in the press or elsewhere – makes them appear more informed and plugged-in than they really are. This becomes an especially serious issue because it can create such a sense of frustration in others, particularly if the offender is in a position of power or management, that overall job satisfaction takes a significant hit.

Finally, the very community it has the potential to create can quickly turn insular, using that shared language as exclusionary and divisive instead of unifying. Someone joining the community as a new hire can quickly feel they aren’t smart enough to be there or that they are too far outside the walls when they are bombarded by terminology they don’t immediately understand. This is just one of a plethora of issues that plague the new employee onboarding process, but is no less serious.

A Challenge Offered

Certainly (almost) no one has it in mind to actively engage in the kinds of negative actions or operate with problematic intent when it comes to using language in the workplace. Everyone (almost) wants to be understood and help others understand.

For writers in work environments, falling into the kinds of traps mentioned above is especially dangerous. We need to produce material that can be easily comprehended and absorbed by the intended audience, whatever their experience level and exposure. And in reality sometimes that’s easier said than done. Writing an email or report recap may not offer many opportunities to use confusing, jargon-filled terminology, but writing a technical document or how-to guide might be more difficult waters to navigate.

So here’s a challenge for you, one I’m in the midst of myself: Spend an hour writing on a piece of paper the most common insider jargon and terminology in your office or workplace. Don’t worry about specific product or tool names as those don’t count, but focus on the ones meant to convey ideas or messages.

Once you have your list, keep it by you, either in your pocket or next to your keyboard on your desk. Before you submit that document, send that email or finish that presentation, run a “Find” search and look for those words. Then ask yourself these questions:

  • How much of what you’ve produced is simply jargon?
  • Is that jargon being used correctly, or are you throwing it in just to show off?
  • Do *you* understand all of that jargon?
  • Are all the recipients or the intended audience going to understand all that?
  • What simpler, less unique words or phrases can be used instead that communicate the same ideas?

It’s not that specific jargon like that isn’t sometimes useful or important. It’s just that you have to be sure it’s being used effectively and correctly for all involved, otherwise you’re contributing to chaos, not aiding productivity in its usage.

Rethinking Office Perks

People’s needs and expectations are – and are going to be – very different.

You’d be hard-pressed to offer a single, cohesive and comprehensive definition of “office perks.” In practice that term can be used to describe anything from free coffee to ping-pong tables in the break room to artisan baguettes served in the commissary.

One thing they all have in common is that they all more or less require employees to be in an office in order to take advantage of them.

In some companies, especially those in Silicon Valley, Wall Street and other areas of concentrated wealth, those perks were sometimes lavish. Even the most basic perks, though, sometimes became important in the lives of the workers. Free snacks in the kitchen, a benefit offered by an increasing number of companies, can be important to some people because it means one less meal they have to plan and shop for, the money then being saved for housing, education or other needs.

Since the widespread Covid-19 office shutdowns, some 62 percent of Americans who can do so have worked or are working from home, a massive increase over even just a few months prior. That’s meant massive changes as people are drinking more coffee and eating more food at home along with many other new or shifted behaviors.

Office – or rather “employment: – perks are going to have change to adapt to this new reality if companies want to continue using them as a means to both attract new employees and retain those they currently have.

No single issue offers a more clear example of this reality than that of childcare.

As of right now we’re looking at what can realistically be called a second phase of the first wave of Covid-19 cases around the country. New cases are at their highest level, more than what was seen in March or April. Many states are stopping or rolling back plans to reopen their economies. Still, the essential workers who have been clocking in every day regardless of the situation are going to continue to do so. Those workers are often paid less and don’t have the luxury of working from home. Nor are they likely to enjoy the kind of perks those in other professions are able to take advantage of.

Regardless of what kind of job someone has, the odds are good childcare isn’t among the perks offered. That includes not being free to take time off when they need to as well as not have access to subsidized daycare options. The picture gets worse when you consider many daycare facilities have closed during the pandemic and, like schools, the chances of their reopening in the fall seem sketchy at best given the high infection rates being reported around the country.

Parents may have been able to patch something together for a few months, but many now face the very real possibility this will be their new reality for at least the rest of this calendar year if not the entirety of the 2020/21 school year. That or whatever professional childcare facilities are open will be prohibitively expensive given the increased cleaning procedures that need to be followed along with other challenges that will drive up costs.

If a child at home will need full-time care, that responsibility will in most cases fall on the mother, leading to a widening of the gender gap in the workforce.

Companies who are serious about policies that benefit all workers – as well as society as a whole – could play a major role in turning that around by reevaluating the kinds of non-payroll benefits they offer.

Here’s a good rule of thumb. If a perk looks like anything on the list below, get rid of it immediately and put all of that money into helping your employees afford childcare:

  • It’s something people need to be in the office to enjoy.
  • Any part of it looks like something you’d see in SkyMall.
  • It’s something that looks like it originated in a college dorm, and not in a good way.
  • It was recommended in a TED Talk.

That may seem a bit sarcastic, but it’s not.

Aside from all that, it’s vitally important companies decide now whether they will support employees or hang them out to dry. In addition to childcare reimbursements and allowances, consideration has to be given to how workers are balancing their lives. Expectations should be reset so that workers who need to shift their hours to earlier or later in the day, or split up their day a bit more, are made to feel they can do so without fear of being judged poorly for doing so.

This is a world of unknowns we are all operating in. Everyone is making it up as they go along, and companies can do their part by simply not punishing parents scrambling to make childcare and education work.

A Noodle-Centric Next Chapter

Some personal news.

Throughout the last nearly four years, my job situation has been..fluid. There’s been freelance work, contract work, retail work and just about everything else you can imagine. I’ve managed social media programs, written white papers, edited email newsletters and slung more than a few lattes over that time.

Now it’s time for the next thing.

Back in February I started doing part-time contract work for GoNoodle, a children’s entertainment company. Now I’m happy to say I’ve accepted an offer to become that company’s full-time Manager, Content Programming.

My short time already at GoNoodle has been wonderful. I’ve met some smart people who have accepted me with open arms, even as I ask “OK, but why?” several dozen times a day. They’ve welcomed my input and experience and put up my Slack GIFs.


So what will I be doing in this role?

  • Deciding which content is published to the GoNoodle homepages
  • Testing various theories and hypotheses regarding what makes content popular
  • Organizing existing content and participating in planning new material
  • Managing the priorities of other departments and putting them all in the content funnel

And, of course, showing off my Jordan-strong Slack GIF game.

One of the things that attracted me to GoNoodle was a desire to do something a little more meaningful with my career. Thankfully I’ve rarely been asked or required by any employer or client to do anything directly contrary to my values, but a company whose goals are childhood fitness, compassion and empathy for your friends and neighbors as well as educational success was just what I had been looking for.

Another element that led me to say “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes” was actually the same thing that brought me into the company in the first place: The chance to work with Jason James again.

Jason was my primary day-to-day contact when I was at Voce and he was at DC Entertainment from late 2011 to about the end of 2015, before he moved on to other opportunities. He and I, along with the rest of the Voce team, quickly found we shared sensibilities and perspectives, challenging while also completely supporting each other. Working with him was a blast.

So when I returned his out-of-the-blue call and he explained how he had recently joined GoNoodle and was looking for someone he trusted to come in and run the department he was overseeing, I couldn’t jump on board fast enough, especially after learning more about his mission.

You can read more about GoNoodle and its mission in this post from KC Estenson when he joined as the company’s new CEO in 2018. And here’s the story from earlier this year when Jason was brought on to head content strategy and programming.

This is obviously an unusual time, and being offered a full-time position in the midst of an economy-shattering pandemic was the furthest thing from my mind. I’m thankful for the opportunity and hope this will be the beginning of a long relationship with the company.