Politics at work: Can employees be fired for expressing their views?
Posted September 29, 2016
By Katie Loehrke, PHR, editor, J. J. Keller & Associates
As the 2016 Presidential race nears its conclusion, just about everyone seems willing to share their opinions on the candidates, parties, and issues — whether they’re asked to or not. For many of the nation’s workers, this can lead to uncomfortable situations or outright arguments while on the job. Responding with a personal opinion might seem like second nature, but it might also be a risky move, career-wise.
Employers generally have the right to limit employees’ political commentary during work time, and many of them choose to do so, given the often-heated nature of the subject. Workers should always use common sense when deciding whether or not to discuss political issues at work, but there are some situations in which employees should definitely steer clear of such talk:
1) When the business owner or boss is vocal about his or her own beliefs — It’s a concept that might be shocking to many Americans: In many states, private employers may fire workers for their political beliefs.
Under the at-will employment doctrine, in the absence of a contract, employers can terminate employment at any time and for any reason not prohibited by law. Every state except Montana subscribes to the at-will doctrine. Under this principle, organizations don’t need “just cause” to fire someone. If local or state law doesn’t prohibit it, private employers generally may terminate an individual because of his or her political beliefs.
Many misinterpret the First Amendment and believe that it applies in all cases related to freedom of speech. The First Amendment only applies to government censorship of speech. As such, it restricts public employers from engaging in this practice.
Most private employers won’t typically terminate employees for their political beliefs. The bad publicity from such actions will typically outweigh any perceived benefits. Even in states and locations without laws protecting employees’ political beliefs, employers will have to tread a fine line. Some states, like Wisconsin, prohibit employers from taking action on employees’ legal activities, such as running for office or voting. If the discussions are union related, they might also be protected.
Yet, employees should still be cautious. A business owner or manager who is strongly invested in his or her political beliefs could discipline or terminate others with opposing viewpoints.
2) When it wastes time — Many employers recognize that restricting all non-work-related conversations can have a detrimental effect on morale. But if employees are spending large amounts of time debating the pros and cons of a particular political candidate or issue when they should be working, an employer is going to take notice and likely take action. Employers generally have control over what employees may and may not do on company property and on work time.
3) When discriminatory language is involved — Employers have a duty to prevent and address discrimination in the workplace. If employees are holding inappropriate discussions about a candidate’s sex, age, race, religion, ethnicity, or other protected traits, the employer will likely want to take action. A business may be held liable for fostering a hostile work environment if it does not halt such conduct.
Because of the legal ramifications, most employers take discrimination in the workplace very seriously and will respond accordingly. This could include discipline and even termination.
4) When representing the company — If an employee is passing himself or herself off as a company representative, or even sporting company logos (on a shirt, hat, etc.) while giving a personal interview on the subject of politics, an employer likely has the right to act. Such actions could give customers and others the impression that the employee’s beliefs are those of the company.
Think before speaking
When faced with a workplace situation involving heavy political posturing, it can be hard to consider the effects of statements prior to making them in front of coworkers. But taking a moment to think about the consequences of certain political discussions before engaging in them might be the best way for employees to safeguard their job.
Employees should consider the career risks of bringing politics to work. The best course of action might be to leave political discussion at the door.
According to a recent CareerBuilder poll:
- 36 percent of workers reported they discuss politics at work
- 23 percent of workers who have discussed politics at work reported they had a heated discussion or fight with a coworker, boss, or someone else higher up in the organization
About the author:
Katie Loehrke is a certified Professional in Human Resources and an editor with J. J. Keller & Associates, a nationally recognized risk management firm. The company offers a diverse line of products and services to address the broad range of responsibilities held by corporate professionals. Loehrke specializes in employment law topics such as discrimination, privacy and social media, and affirmative action. She is the editor of J. J. Keller’s Employment Law Today newsletter and its Essentials of Employment Law manual. For more information, visit www.jjkeller.com/hr.