Introduction to Political Speech in the Workplace

political speech in the workplaceThis year’s presidential election cycle is shaping up to be one of the most contentious contests in recent memory. It seems that every adult of voting age has a favorite candidate and a litany of reasons why that candidate is the best for the country – and they are not afraid to share these opinions. Political discourse like this (however contentious or boisterous) is what makes America great – the country’s founding fathers envisioned a country where each person could freely hold his or her opinion and share his or her political viewpoint with others without the fear of government reprisal. The “marketplace of ideas” and the election process would determine which ideas the country would adopt.

That being said, political speech is not permitted any time and any place. The law does allow employers to limit political speech under certain circumstances.

Protections for Employees – and Their Politics

The law does not afford employees – especially private sector employees – many protections when it comes to political speech. (Public sector employees generally have more protections in this regard). For example, your private-sector employer may be able to:

  • Decline to hire you because you belong to a particular political party, have made donations in the past to a particular political party, or support a particular candidate;
  • Make promotion decisions based in part on whether the employee shares the employer’s political views;
  • Restrict employees from leaving the workplace to attend political rallies, even if employees are generally allowed to leave the premises for lunch breaks;
  • Send messages to employees encouraging them to support a particular cause or candidate and restricting the employees’ rights to distribute similar but (perhaps) contrary messages;
  • Terminate a worker’s employment because of that worker’s political activities, even if those activities are conducted on the employee’s own time away from work. For example, an employer could likely terminate an employee who distributed leaflets conflicting with the employer’s viewpoints around his or her neighborhood after work.  See the article in Forbes on how talking politics in the workplace can get you fired.

How to Keep Your Job but Remain Politically Active

What is an employee to do when he or she feels compelled to participate in the political process but fears losing his or her job or experiencing other acts of retaliation from his or her employer?
Although there are not many satisfactory courses of action available, employees can:

  • Review his or her employee handbook and look for implied contracts. Despite the general discretion employers enjoy in regulating the political activity of their workers, employers cannot violate their own promises. If a handbook contains an explicit or implicit promise not to terminate employees for political activity, then that promise would be enforceable against the employer.
  • Speak with your employer. If you are unsure about your employer’s stance on political activity outside the workplace, often a friendly chat can clear the matter up. Ask your employer how he or she feels about employees discussing politics on company time and whether your political activity outside of work can negatively impact your career.
  • Carefully consider what political activities you choose to engage in. Many employers that limit political activity do so because they do not want their employees actively campaigning or advocating for candidates or issues that run adverse to the company. For example, your employer would likely oppose any candidate or cause that seeks to raise the minimum wage and that labels all business owners as “greedy capitalists.” If your job is important to you, you may wish to refrain from actively supporting such a cause or candidate (or, at the very least, you should speak with your employer before grabbing your picket sign and marching).

For more information contact an experienced employment law attorney today.