How to deal with hate speech at work?

12.5.2020

Dealing with inappropriate feedback is not the individual’s responsibility: it involves the entire working community.

There is a lot of discussion about hate speech and the increasing problems it causes, but few effective practical tools for dealing with this phenomenon. When an individual encounters inappropriate feedback at work, the working community needs to support them. Sometimes inappropriate negative comments are targeted at the whole community. This article sets out some ways in which employees and employers can quickly and easily find support and identify ways and solutions for confronting hate speech.

The article draws from the Finnish website Häiritsevä palaute (‘Inappropriate feedback’). This website was developed in order to raise awareness of inappropriate feedback and to provide research-based information for communications professionals and HR professionals in Finland. We want to help all those working in expert positions to form a solid understanding of hate speech and how it can be handled. We want to make sure that experts are not afraid to take part in public discourse, now or in the future.

Hate speech threatens democracy and affects the individual

Recommendation no. R (97) 20 of the European Council’s Committee of Ministers defines hate speech as follows: “All forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance, including: intolerance expressed by aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism, discrimination and hostility against minorities, migrants and people of immigrant origin.”

Individual’s fundamental rights and human dignity cannot be violated in the name of freedom of expression. The Criminal Code of Finland restricts freedom of expression by making for example defamation and ethnic agitation punishable offences. Hate speech that is punishable by law is thus also a hate crime.

Justified and well-argued differing opinions and scientific disputes do not qualify as inappropriate feedback. Feedback is inappropriate when its content or form of expression is offensive or threatening, or when it causes unreasonable amount of distress and anxiety.

Inappropriate feedback isn’t always hate speech, but it tends to be a considerable stressor. In 2015 and 2017, the Committee for Public Information in Finland conducted an online survey among researchers about the feedback they receive when they appear in public in expert roles. Examples of public appearances included publishing non-fiction books, speaking in events open to the public, giving interviews, and publications in newspapers, magazines, blogs or on social media.

The survey also defined what inappropriate feedback is not. Justified and well-argued differing opinions and scientific disputes do not qualify as inappropriate feedback. Feedback is inappropriate when its content or form of expression is offensive or threatening, or when it causes unreasonable amount of distress and anxiety.

Inappropriate feedback can take spoken or written form. It can take place in print or through electronic communication or social media. It can be physical or include a physical threat, and it can be directed at the expert’s social circle or property.

Freedom of expression and publicity are the foundations of open society and democracy. In terms of access to information and knowledge management in the society, it would be highly detrimental if fear of negative publicity prevented critical public discussion of certain topics. If professionals and experts are absent from public discussion or if they carefully select their public appearances for fear of hate speech, public space becomes easily filled with rumour and opinions based on misinformation. It is a dangerous thing if political decision-making does not involve research-based knowledge.

The surveys of the Committee for Public Information show that hate speech causes researchers to consider their public appearances more carefully in Finland. Experts may find it difficult to participate in public discussion, if there is a possibility that their contribution will attract negative, even offensive feedback. In a healthy society, the power associated with expertise can and should be called into question, but hate speech that targets individuals is never justified.

In a healthy society, the power associated with expertise can and should be called into question, but hate speech that targets individuals is never justified.

In Finland and other Nordic countries, a culture of high trust and low fear has traditionally prevailed. Our culture of open discussion has been based on our ability to trust fellow conversationalists, to share our views and to listen to each other. Experts have been included in the decision-making process by being consulted in political committees and interviews in the media.

However, the volume of public discussion was much smaller in the days before social media. Before social media, public discussion generally took place in platforms that followed journalistic principles, and it usually involved the representatives of citizens, like politicians and organisational leaders. In the era of social media, everyone can exercise their right to free expression, and the field of social media cannot be moderated or monitored in its entirety. As a result, interaction does not always follow the norms of good behaviour or law.

People can face inappropriate feedback in everyday working situations and one-on-one interactions with clients or customers; the concept doesn’t refer to hate campaigns alone. Research findings, for example, may be inconvenient for a company whose activities impact the environment. If the company responds with inappropriate feedback, this can cause the researcher anxiety and shame and even harm their ability to continue working.

Experts’ public appearances or scrutiny of their work should not cause personal distress. Experts should be able to consider publicity and the appropriate evaluation of their work as a natural part of their job description. But even though experts and people in position of power should be able to handle appropriate criticism, no-one should get used to hate speech or submit to it. Communities of experts can develop methods for confronting hate speech in the Finnish society, in their fields of expertise and their social circles. They can also form support networks and help victims of hate speech.

What can I do about hate speech?

Hate speech typically takes its target by surprise. Sudden and unexpected offensive feedback is a serious stressor that increases mental workload, and the increasing stress can eventually harm the whole working community. Organisations don’t always have clear procedures for addressing problems caused by inappropriate feedback or for defusing the situation. Responsibilities may not be clear, either. The target of hate speech may then be left to fend for themselves.

The phenomenon of inappropriate feedback affects all fields of working life, but it has received little attention perhaps excepting the media. Journalists as a profession have often experienced continuous harassment, and practices for dealing with these situations have therefore been developed in this field.

Dealing with inappropriate feedback requires personal strength. An expert’s professional identity may be deeply affected and wounded, and sometimes they and their work communities are even pushed into reassessing and updating their professional identities. However, expertise by its very nature is continuously evolving and subject to change by new information and newly acquired skills. An individual’s participation in various communities of the workplace, the professional community and the society at large is in constant transformation alongside the changes taking place in work, societal structures, and social and cultural conditions. Experts are constantly called upon to reassess their identities, involvement and competences.

In order to retain confidence in one’s professional skills and expertise also in harassment situations, it is helpful to articulate the emotions and reactions that the feedback causes and to think about whether there are messages worth taking seriously behind the offensive form of expression. Critical and constructive feedback is actually helpful for the feedback giver and the feedback recipient. Inappropriate feedback, on the other hand, tries to degrade the target’s dignity or diminish their influence.

These first aid instructions are useful when inappropriate feedback arrives unexpectedly.

  • Save all messages immediately, as social media messages can be deleted or edited. Save all emails, text messages and other messages you receive – do not delete anything.
  • Are you in danger? If so, act at once. If you have been directly threatened, contact the emergency services or the police. Document both direct and indirect threats. Indirect threats may meet the criteria for criminal behaviour.
  • Report the inappropriate message to the administrator of the website or social media channel and ask them to delete it. You can also block the user. This prevents them from sending you more messages or from posting on your website.
  • Seek help, do not suffer alone. Inform your supervisor and your organisation. It’s not a private concern when an expert receives work-related inappropriate feedback. Hate speech can multiply and snowball out of control, and this can damage the organisation’s reputation. A rapid response is of paramount importance.
  • Keep your cool. Remember that civil behaviour and appropriate language use are always in your best interests, even if your fellow conversationalist lacks the skills for a respectful debate. Do not respond until you have assessed the situation.

Good leadership helps the working community prevent inappropriate feedback

The calm examination and handling of a harassment situation delivers a strong message about good leadership and working culture. The organisation’s senior management is responsible for disentangling the situation. Alternatively, the immediate supervisor, the HR director, the communications director and the occupational health and safety committee share that responsibility. Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act in Finland, the employer is responsible for continuous monitoring of hazards and risks in the work environment. This includes inappropriate feedback. The immediate supervisor must make sure that the responsibilities for identifying and dealing with harmful workload have been clearly defined.

When an organisation has instructions for dealing with harassment incidents, conflicts can more likely be prevented from escalating. The employer is in the wrong if they leave their employees to figure out the causes and solutions alone.

A good supervisor anticipates the possibility for inappropriate feedback and directs the working community in drawing up shared guidelines for handling such incidents.

The supervisor is the employer’s representative for the employees. A good supervisor anticipates the possibility for inappropriate feedback and directs the working community in drawing up shared guidelines for handling such incidents. The workplace atmosphere should be fostered in order to ensure that the employees won’t be afraid to inform their supervisor of harassment. When the working community has shared and agreed-upon procedures for dealing with inappropriate feedback, this reduces the stressors experienced by the individual and prevent conflicts within the community that excessive stress can cause.

Many working communities have shared procedures and ethical codes of conduct to help tackle inappropriate feedback from clients or customers. The social and health care sector and the police, familiar with highly stressful customer interactions, have found it particularly important to have a system in place for handling difficult experiences. Existing guidelines for handling customer feedback should be expanded to cover all forms of inappropriate feedback in every field of expert work.

Supervisors also need to support and reinforce their employees’ professional pride and confidence in their work and expertise. Sometimes employees whose work involves public appearances or who face other types of public scrutiny need support to continue working. It can also happen that unintentional misunderstandings can lead to a feeling of being harassed. In these situations, a genuine attempt to understand the feelings and points of view of both the feedback giver and the feedback receiver can prevent the conflict from escalating. Thinking about the reasons behind our reactions, together and separately, is important. What if I found myself in the other person’s situation?

When a member of the working community receives inappropriate feedback, it’s good to discuss who, if anyone, is the best person to respond. Is it the feedback recipient, the immediate supervisor or a communications professional? Sometimes it is better for colleagues to continue the discussion in public. This helps keep the focus on the issue at hand and prevents the situation from escalating into a personal argument. If the situation continues, the working community should develop a strategy for dealing with possibly continuing feedback in order to relieve the individual expert’s stress.

Occupational health and safety in workplaces

Work should never harm an employee’s health and safety. Occupational health and safety regulation helps reduce potential risks in the workplace. For that reason, employers are obligated to organise an occupational health and safety committee in the workplace.

The occupational health and safety manager is the employer’s representative in the occupational health and safety committee. The employees elect an occupational health and safety delegate as their representative. The occupational health and safety manager is responsible for occupational health and safety in the workplace. Larger organisations develop their own occupational health and safety policy (Occupational Safety and Health Act, section 9), usually under the supervision of the occupational health and safety manager. This policy defines how the working community identifies and assesses work-related hazards and risks and how the organisation in question ensures occupational health and safety in the workplace.

Work should never harm an employee’s health and safety.

The occupational health and safety policy tends to focus on physical hazards and risks, but is important to be aware that the psychosocial workload is increasing. The working community, directed by the occupational health and safety manager, should create a policy for handling work-related inappropriate feedback, because this is a workplace stressor that increases employees’ workload. The occupational health and safety manager’s responsibility is to initiate the development of occupational health and safety procedures in the workplace and to support that activity. The employer retains a statutory liability for these questions.

If the work poses immediate and severe danger to the employee, the occupational health and safety delegate has the right to suspend it. Inappropriate feedback can create a severe risk, if the volume of feedback is considerable, if the expert is personally targeted, if the feedback threatens to invalidate their work, or if it includes threats against the expert or those closest to them. The occupational health and safety delegate must ensure that the workplace has a clear policy for dealing with inappropriate feedback.

The occupational health and safety delegates and the occupational health services should carry out a workplace review. This review identifies the impacts of the work tasks, the working community and the working environment on health and working ability, and it forms the basis for the organisation’s occupational health care action plan. The health care action plan can include guidelines for dealing with inappropriate feedback. If an employee’s ability to work begins to decrease, the occupational health service has the responsibility to follow developments in their health, to advise them on rehabilitation, and to refer them to rehabilitation. A person who has been targeted with inappropriate feedback may need help from an occupational health psychologist to work through their thoughts and feelings about the experience.

Occupational safety and health laws protect the employees and ensure that workplaces operate fairly. Employees themselves don’t need to be familiar with all the labour laws. The occupational health and safety manager’s job is to make sure that provisions and guidelines of laws are followed with regard to occupational health and safety. Information of occupational health and safety laws can be found for example on the website of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Finland.

In managing workplace operations and safety the employers are bound by the Employment Contracts Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Act on Occupational Safety and Health Enforcement and Cooperation on Occupational Safety and Health at Workplaces, the Occupational Health Care Act, the Act on Equality between Women and Men, the Non-discrimination Act, the Working Hours Act, the Annual Holidays Act, and the Act on Co-operation within Undertakings. Several other laws, particularly the Criminal Code of Finland, determine whether the inappropriate feedback in question meets the criteria for criminal behaviour.

The size of the working community matters

Small organisations don’t always have shared methods for crisis communications or indeed for any other types of communication. Communication between supervisors and employees tends to be straightforward and fast. Organisations of fewer than ten people often don’t have an occupational health and safety committee, with representatives of the staff and the occupational health and safety manager. Responses to inappropriate feedback are often issued together, by the organisation as a whole.

However, it is in the best interests of small organisations as well to discuss procedures and roles in the event of inappropriate feedback. It is better to plan these methods of operation together, in a calm environment, before anything happens. This prevents panic reactions.

In larger organisations, lawyers, the HR department and the established practices of the organisation ensure that there are up-to-date guidelines for dealing with inappropriate feedback. Good participation practices in the working community are necessary for developing an atmosphere that allows employers to bring up difficult issues openly.

However, not everyone has a working community to support them. Grant recipients, freelancers, private traders and others who work alone can easily be left without the occupational health and safety protection that employers are obligated to provide. Temporary agency workers, workers funded by grants and subcontractors may not receive the same standard of protection in the working community.

The diverse group of self-employed persons consists of people working outside employment relationships in many different ways. If there is no employment contract, the self-employed person should ask how the client or commissioner of work or services will ensure their occupational health and safety. It is also a good idea to ask for instructions on what to do in the event of harassment. Harassment incidents should be immediately reported to the client.

Self-employed persons can be protected from inappropriate feedback by the legislation, the possible client or commissioner of work or services, and their own knowledge of relevant ethical issues in their field. Networks for the self-employed provide an important space where people in similar circumstances can learn from each other, share experiences, share working environments, and seek training.

Dr Sikke Leinikki is a Development Specialist at TJS Opintokeskus. Dr Annamari Huovinen is a researcher at Mediakollektiivi Cooperative.

The article draws from the outcome of a project of TJS Opintokeskus and Mediakollektiivi Cooperative that was funded by the Finnish Work Environment Fund. The authors contributed to the creation of the Häiritsevä palaute website (‘Inappropriate Feedback’). The website offers support and help in Finnish for dealing with inappropriate feedback in a community context. The Responsible Research project took part in developing the website.