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  • Loretta Lockesmith

Limits to what employees can say

To what extent should an employer be able to control the pubic expression of its staffs' political and religious beliefs? What are the responsibilities of employees to uphold the values of their employer?

I walked into Kate’s bedroom yesterday to find a new poster on her wall - a handsome young man in a blue tee-shirt and a tattooed right arm.

Later in the day, this led to a serious discussion about the rights of employers and employees. It's a much more complex issue than it seems at first glance.


Isn’t he just divine?


Who dear?


Israel Folau.


Is he the one in your new poster?



She smiled and I think I detected a slight blush.


Who is Israel Folau?


He is Australia’s leading Rugby player.


Well I must say he is a very handsome young man.


He is not Australia’s leading Rugby player any longer.


Why not?


He made some homophobic comments on an Instagram post and they fired him.


Who fired him?


Rugby Australia. They are the controlling body for the whole game.

They fired him and so now he cannot play rugby anywhere in Australia.



He made some homophobic comments and they have taken away his livelihood?

He must have said something truly awful.

Does he have a history of being objectionably anti-gay?


No. He made his comments as a Christian.

I don’t think he was being homophobic.

I think he was just trying to encourage people to be good, to be Christian like him.

Those who know him, those who have worked closely with him, speak very highly of him.


I am not following this at all.

You say he is not homophobic.

He was just expressing his opinions as a Christian.

But his employer found his post so offensive that they have banned him from

playing football anywhere in Australia.

What did he say?


He said:

“Warning: Drunks. Homosexuals. Adulterers. Liars. Fornicators. Thieves. Atheists.

Idolaters. Hell awaits you. Repent. Only Jesus Saves.

Those that are living in Sin will end up in Hell unless you repent.

Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him.”

He quoted the bible too.

“Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these, adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revelings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”

Apparently, that comes from Galatians 5:19-21, King James Version.


So, he was not specifically addressing rugby players.


Not at all. You do not have to play rugby to be addicted to the sins of the flesh.

But perhaps it helps.

There have been stories of somewhat unsavoury party behaviour by teams of rugby players.

I think some of them may have committed a few of the sins on St. Paul's list!


He was speaking as a Christian, not as Rugby player?


That is right.

However, he is such a high-profile player that anything he does is seen as the actions of

Folau the footballer.


Does that mean that his employer has control over his whole life?

Can they determine what he is allowed to say in public?

Can they determine what he is allowed to say in private?

Can they determine what he is allowed to think?

Can they determine who he can associate with? – who his friends should be?


Surely not.


I doubt that is the intent of Rugby Australia.

However, if Israel is a devout Christian and his Christianity requires that

he proselytise his faith, that he tells others of his beliefs and encourages

them to believe as he does, then he has obligations as a Christian which

conflict with the demands of his employment as a footballer.

In Rugby Australia’s view, he cannot publicly promote such views and still play football.


Frank. That would be a nonsense. It would mean that Christians could not play Rugby.

It probably means Muslims could not play either.


Not entirely. They could, provided they kept their views to themselves.


But Dad. That would mean that an employer like Rugby Australia could restrict

the promotion of any beliefs contrary to their own.


In a free society, we cannot countenance ideas being withheld from public debate

because they conflict with those of your employer.

That would give a few people, namely employers and the CEOs of large

organisations, unacceptable power over the rest of us.


But it is not so straight forward.

Employment conveys many benefits on employees over and above the financial rewards.

It provides an environment in which they can fulfil themselves as human beings, acquire

new skills, build friendships, share mutual values, enjoy being part of a successful team,

take pride in the products and services that they create.

In return, there are often necessary restrictions on the freedom of the employees.

Typical restrictions might include:

Not using confidential information for their own gain.

Not expressing views that are contrary to the ethos of the firm.

Not being vulgar in dress, manners or language.


Yes. I can see that.

In many jobs, employees are required to wear a uniform.

Being polite and courteous to clients is a general requirement even when it is not reciprocated.

Dress and language that would be perfectly appropriate for a construction worker might be quite unacceptable in an accountant.

Public servants might need to be circumspect about their political views.

Teachers in a religious school may need to be circumspect about their own religious beliefs.

Former politicians may not be allowed to accept employment in areas where their

former ministerial involvement gave them access to information not generally available.

Of course, in these cases, if they felt too constrained, they could seek employment elsewhere.


But Mum. For most people, much of their life revolves around their workplace and

after work interactions with their work colleagues.

Being constrained about what you may talk about could be very onerous.

What if you have passionate views on matters of politics, or religion, or the upbringing of children, or climate change, or homosexuality, or refugees, or animal rights?

Are these inappropriate topics for discussion during working hours, around the coffee machine, or over Friday night drinks?


Maybe we could think about it this way.

Is it appropriate to initiate discussion on such topics?

Perhaps some topics require permission from the audience.

Maybe there is a difference between proselytising and being invited to explain your views.

“Tell me how the habitat of the black-throated finch will be impacted by the Adani mine,” opens the topic for discussion. Conceivably it would then be permissible to extend the conversation to the mine’s impact on the Great Barrier Reef.

Even so, maybe you should be more prudent raising such matters with clients or sponsors than friends and colleagues. If a client or sponsor were offended by your remarks, that could impact the livelihood of your employer and your colleagues. It might be inappropriate for you to be taking your employer’s or your client’s coin in such circumstances.


What if you have passionate views that certain industries, though legal, are unethical?

What if you think coal mining is destroying the planet, or tobacco causes cancer or

chicken farming involves animal cruelty?

If your firm is supplying these industries, do you have the right to withhold your services? Or can your employer legitimately insist that you service them in the usual way?


Maybe in such cases, you should not impose your views on others and if you cannot

persuade your employer not to work for such clients then your recourse is to resign

and to find work elsewhere.


That is all very well if it is possible to find alternative employment.

That may not always be possible – for instance, in a country town.

In Israel Folau’s case, you say Rugby Australia has a monopoly and

if he cannot work for them, he has no alternative in Australia.


Good point. I think that imposes a constraint on Rugby Australia

to be prudent and not to overreact.


Given that there are circumstances in which the employer may impose restrictions,

what limitations is it reasonable to impose?

How relevant must they be to the firm’s mission?

Does the CEO of a company have the right to impose his personal views on his staff or to take a public position as CEO on political issues?

Furthermore, does he have the right to impose his personal views on the organisations that his firm sponsors?


The Folau case raises all these questions.

The legitimate restrictions that an employer may impose on an employee outside the workplace are less clear.

In some senses, whether in or out of the workplace, you are always representing your employer. If you work for a professional firm, then they may legitimately insist of standards of behaviour all the time. Drunken, loutish behaviour at the football may be unacceptable. In other occupations that may not be such a concern.

The reasonable rule here would seem to be “Does it impact the firm’s reputation?”

Sporting teams may impose restrictions on their players’ social activities if it impinges on their fitness. Late night partying and drinking may be verboten at least during the season. No sex before a match was once a common requirement.


You’re joking.


No I am not.

Frank smiles and continues.

The reasonable rule here would seem to be “Does it impact the employee’s ability to do the job?”

In the case of Israel Folau, he is a public figure, the best rugby footballer in Australia, and he has used social media to promote his Christian views. Whether or not his contract contained restrictions from such activity is a legal matter. My concern would be whether Rugby Australia, as an employer, had any right to impose such restrictions. I don’t think they did.


So, would you say that an employer may restrict its employees’ rights only when

they impact the ability of the firm to carry out its mission?


Yes. The expression of Christian beliefs, done in a personal capacity and not as the

spokesman for Rugby Australia, does not impact the organisation’s ability to promote

its sport. So, I don’t think they should have imposed such restrictions.


Of course, in this case, it may have had a financial impact with its key sponsor.

Qantas is an outspoken proponent of the LGBTI cause.

They may well have been offended by the Folau tweet.


That raises other issues. Does the sponsor have the right to withdraw funding

if it disapproves of the behaviour of the team?


Certainly. If the team were to engage, for instance, in riotous, drunken and sexual

partying then a sponsor might well decide that they did not wish their brand

to be sullied by association.

However, it is an entirely different circumstance if one of your players has religious or political views that are at variance with those of the CEO of your sponsor.

Just as we expect employees to be circumspect expressing their views to clients and colleagues, so we should expect that CEOs will not use their position as CEO to impose their views on their employees nor the employees of those organisations that their business sponsors.


Faced with a conflict between protecting the rights of an employee and the demands

of a sponsor, what should they do?


The employer should find an alternative sponsor if necessary.


I think you are right Dad. Imagine if sponsors in general were able to determine

the publicly stated views of players in the teams they sponsor.

If Adani were sponsoring your netball team, then the girls would not be allowed to express their views about the damage the mine will do to the Great Barrier Reef.

Or if Steggles were sponsoring your soccer team the boys would not be allowed to protest about animal rights.

Or government sponsoring such as by Work Safe. Imagine if all the players had to agree with all the political views of the Daniel Andrews.


Well we have covered a lot of ground. Tell me if you agree with the following:

  1. It is reasonable for an employer to establish codes of dress and behaviour appropriate to the workplace and conducive to delivering the firm’s products and services.

  2. In the workplace, employees should be courteous to customers and colleagues and not take advantage of work situations to impose their beliefs on others. They should wait to be invited before raising contentious issues.

  3. It is not reasonable for employers, or the CEOs of public companies, to impose their personal religious or political beliefs on employees, including the employees of organisations which their companies sponsor.

  4. Nor is it reasonable for employees to impose their personal religious or political beliefs on their employers.

  5. As a general rule, employees should be granted their rights to their religious and political beliefs, to free speech, to form voluntary associations and to choose their friends and associates without hindrance from their employer.

  6. However, there may be circumstances where some constraints are reasonable. These need to be carefully defined and articulated. They will occur when the employee’s behaviour and actions outside the workplace can have a serious and significant impact on the firm’s ability to carry out its mission.

To be specific:

Debauched behaviour in public by an employee in a law firm could well be a sackable offence.

To suggest that a footballer quoting the bible is a sackable offence, is risible.


This is part of the series, The Lockesmith Dialogues, social commentary by Loretta Lockesmith talking with her husband Frank, her daughter Kate, and her friends Ann and Marcia.

Loretta Lockesmith is a Melbourne Writer.

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