[author: Janet Raasch]
Political disagreements can arise in the workplace at any time, but especially during an election season. Some of these can be heated. In the interest of maintaining order, many private employers restrict political speech in the workplace. Is this legal?
Political Speech Can Be Limited
At least 80 percent of employees believe that they have a “free speech” right to discuss politics in the workplace: They’re wrong. The First Amendment protects people only from government interference with speech – not employer interference.
In most states, private employers can prohibit the discussion of politics at work. They are within their rights to discipline or even fire an employee for engaging in this activity. They can ban the use of company technology to access political websites or to make statements on social media. They can outlaw political posters, buttons and tee-shirts.
Most Employers Are Tolerant
Although they are legally allowed to ban political expression in the workplace entirely, most private employers understand that it will take place. Two-thirds of employers allow reasonable political discussion in the workplace, as long as it doesn’t interfere with work and employees remain respectful of each other.
A few states, including California, Connecticut, South Carolina and Washington, have limited First Amendment protections against employer curtailment of political activity. There are different rules for public employers, who are considered an extension of the government.
Discrimination Is Always a Risk
Workplace problems often arise when political issues are closely linked with characteristics that are protected by anti-discrimination, harassment or retaliation laws, such as race, sexual orientation, age or disability. In the 2008 presidential election, for example, there was both an African-American and a woman candidate.
As political discussions get more heated, employers might find themselves held liable for allowing a hostile work environment. Political opinion is not a protected characteristic under the law.
Some Exceptions to the Rule
There are exceptions to this rule when political speech is linked to the workers’ employment situation. Certain kinds of political speech in the workplace are protected under provisions of the National Labor Relations Act.
Outside the Office
Some states have laws that protect employees who engage in off-duty political activity, even if it conflicts with an employer’s culture, values or policies. Others do not. In Arizona, for example, the CFO of a medical supply company was recently fired for posting a video on YouTube in which he lambasted Chick-fil-A for its anti-gay activities.
See video here.
Time Off to Vote
The majority of states require that employers allow their employees time off to vote on Election Day. The exact laws vary from state to state.
An Employment Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding political expression in the workplace can be complicated and the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact an employment lawyer.
Do you think employers should be allowed to restrict the political speech of employees in the workplace? What about outside the workplace?
Photo Credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock.