As the 1960s and 1970s were a time of progress for group rights in the workplace, highlighted by prohibitions against discrimination on account of race, national origin and sex, so the 1980s will be an era of individual employe rights in corporations, predicted Alan F. Westin of Columbia University.

The law professor told a corporate executives' seminar yesterday that increasingly employes will insist on their right to express dissent with company policies, to participate in major decisions, to get a proper hearing and appeals process for grievances, and to have access to material affecting them, such as health records. The big question, Westin said, is how much of this will be left to management and how much will fall to the courts. How do you guarantee employes' rights without imposing a legal strait-jacket on the personnel department? he asked.

William I. Spencer, president of Citibank and its holding company, described the fine line between an employe's freedom of speech and outside association on the one hand and a company's "valuable reputation and public image on the other."

Spencer said, "A company's name and public image -- its hard-won reputation earned by prior generations of employes and managements -- have real value. This intangible value is jeopardized when all internal dissent mechanisms have failed and a distraught employe feels there is no recourse to express personal ethical reservations to a public that is often only too willing to hear and believe the worst.

"At this point the company incurs a very substantial loss -- whether or not the employe's charge is verified by an impartial investigation of the facts."

Although Spencer mentioned no names, his remarks seemed to apply to the case of David Edwards, a Citibank employe who was fired in 1978 for blowing the whistle on the alleged overseas currency violations. Edwards complained without satisfaction to his superiors before he told his story to the press and filed a lawsuit for "wrongful dismissal."

Citibank was eventually absolved of wrong-doing by Swiss Banking authorities, although the Justice Department is reportedly still investigating the case. Edwards has appealed a court judgement against him. Meanwhile Citibank suffered unfavorable publicity.

Spencer described Citibank's elaborate internal grievance procedure designed to eliminate such embarrassments, but later denied the Edwards case spurred development of the procedure. Citibank's formal channels include an "impartial review board of peers" set up in 1977 to supplement its Problem Review Procedure, and a Committee on Good Corporate Practice composed of five high-level officers with broad, global career experience.

While Citibank's "tops down" approach is undoubtedly the most common in industry, Northwestern National Bank of Minneapolis has successfully tried a "bottoms up" approach, said its chairman, John W. Morrison. Volunteer employes study and recommend courses of action on issues ranging from constituent rights and privacy to urban development.

On the subject of protecting employes' privacy and granting them access to their records, Carter administration aide Richard M. Neustadt reported that a series of 11 hearings recently in four cities rewarded that big business has a good record and smaller companies have a "terrible" record.

However, he assured his audience that the White House would not seek mandatory privacy legislation of employes' corporate records, even though the lack of government control over them has been a stumbling block to international cooperation.

The administration, on the other hand, supports federal laws protecting individuals' medical, credit, insurance and bank records, and prohibiting the use of polygraph machines in job interviews.

Eula Bingham, director of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, expounded on OSHA's recently issued regulation giving workers access to employer-maintained exposure and medical records on toxic substances and harmful physical agents. The regulation goes into effect Aug. 21. She said that the fundamental right to know how one's health may be or has been affected won out over issues of personal privacy and trade secrets, although these will be protected as much as possible by strictly limiting the use of personally identifiable information.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, who chairs the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, called wage discrimination EEOC's primary issue for the 1980s. She explained that this refers to jobs that are historically segregated by race and especially sex. For example, she said, the commission might seek to find why a company pays its female clerical workers less than its male floor sweepers when a job evaluation shows it takes more skill to be a secretary than a sweeper.