With Nov. 6 drawing closer, the nation waits to see who will win the upcoming presidential election: Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. Debates, campaign commercials and bitter rants on Facebook all compete for people’s attention in an attempt to sway their vote one way or another.
In a few high-profile cases, heads of big companies are also weighing in, strongly suggesting to their employees who they should vote for — or risk losing their jobs.
In one instance, David Siegel, CEO of timeshare company Westgate Resorts, wrote a letter to his employees suggesting they would be fired if Obama is reelected. “What does threaten your job however, is another 4 years of the same Presidential administration,” he wrote. “If any new taxes are levied on me, or my company, as our current President plans, I will have no choice but to reduce the size of this company.”
In another case, Dave Robertson, COO of the multinational Koch Industries, sent a letter to 45,000 employees of subsidiary Georgia Pacific endorsing Romney, and suggesting that if Obama is elected, “many of our more than 50,000 U.S. employees and contractors may suffer the consequences, including higher gasoline prices, runaway inflation, and other ills.”
Even Mitt Romney himself, during a conference call with small business owners, encouraged campaigning in the workplace. “I hope you make it very clear to your employees what you believe is in the best interest of your enterprise and therefore their job and their future in the upcoming elections,” the candidate told his listeners while he accused the president of being anti-business. “Nothing illegal about you talking to your employees about what you believe is best for the business, because I think that will figure into their election decision, their voting decision and of course doing that with your family and your kids as well,” Romney said.
Gray Areas in Between
John M. Barr
Is it legal to for a boss to suggest how employees vote? Yes, but with some caveats, says labor and employment attorney John M. Barr, a partner at Jackson Lewis. “You’re on a whole spectrum here of what people can say,” Barr explains. “At one end, people have First Amendment rights. If you go down to the other end of the spectrum, bosses potentially run a serious risk of criminal liability if they start threatening people.”
“There’s kind of a gray area in between,” the attorney says. “You can wind up setting yourself up for legal problems pursuant to various federal and state employment laws.”
California, New York and Washington D.C. have laws banning employment discrimination based on political affiliation or activity, but most states do not, nor does the federal government. California, Louisiana, Maryland and New Jersey ban bosses from interfering in their workers’ political activity, and a few other states have more specialized laws.
However, employers can run up against other problems. To begin with, your vote is your vote, and your boss can’t and shouldn’t know what lever you actually pull in the polling station. “In no circumstances can employers ever utter anything construed as threat, or a promise, like trying to bribe people to vote, saying your salaries will go up if you vote for those candidates,” says Barr. “That’s a red line you don’t want to cross.”
Employers have to be wary about saying anything that could be interpreted as a threat against unionization, as well. “I think employers need to be more cautious about unionization when they start making comments when it comes to an election,” Barr says. Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act gives all employees the right to organize, which employers could be in danger of violating if they urge support for a particular candidate based on expressed hostility toward union rights.
Seigel and Koch dodge specific threats by suggesting that their entire companies will lose business or go under if the president is reelected, avoiding warnings about specific people’s jobs based on who they vote for. Creepy? Perhaps. But illegal? No.
Do you think employers should be allowed to make threats (veiled or otherwise) to influence the way employees vote?