Most organizations do not formally manage political discussions in the workplace. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) cites that barely a quarter of businesses have formal policies regarding political expression in the job. That means that most employees have no formal governance on whether they can talk politics at work.
That may be changing, as today’s political climate has people talking, texting, posting, and otherwise overtly conveying how they feel. The division of political parties is being felt strongly in this country, and the workplace is not immune from political discussion or even aggression.
An interesting survey conducted by CareerBuilder showed that 30 percent of managers and 17 percent of employees had argued with a co-worker regarding a political candidate or issue during the past election season. More than 5,000 private sector employees participated in the survey.
More and more employers are looking at formalizing policies regarding political discussion given recent events. Following are issues they should address when doing so.
First Amendment Rights
Many workers would argue that the First Amendment protects their right to free speech. That is not true for most employees. The First Amendment applies only to government censorship, so the workplaces of government employees are protected under the First Amendment. Private employers can regulate and even prohibit political expression if they so choose. Those who work for private companies are bound to their employers’ policies.
Every company or organization strives to offer a workplace culture in which employees feel valued and comfortable. On the one hand, they do not want to stifle employees’ expression of themselves. On the other hand, they do not want to promote or tolerate heated political discussions. Their policies regarding political expression must be conducive to the culture they have or are seeking.
It is hoped that a business or organization knows and has communicated what it stands for and what it values. Almost all companies have policies regarding workplace discrimination and harassment that are tied to federal and state laws. Because political discussion can often turn aggressive or lead to hate speech, the company’s political discussion policies should reinforce both its values and federal laws.
Productivity and Morale
Studies show that political discussion in the workplace decreases productivity. This decrease happens among those who are not involved in the debate as well. They are often distracted by the language used and the volume or temperament of the exchanges. Policies should reflect expectations around productivity and be communicated clearly to employees.
Morale is also an issue. Many employees feel threatened or otherwise disturbed by political talk, especially if they do not share the same viewpoints. Employers should make clear the effect political discussion has on morale.
Peer pressure exists in the workplace. Workers may be compelled to align with one employee or group that shares their political views. This causes division in the workplace that can be detrimental to team or individual performance. Other employees may be intimidated by political talk, causing them to believe they are working in a hostile work environment. A policy should address peer pressure head-on.
Definition of Political Expression
A company policy regarding political expression must clearly define what political expression is. For example, is talking about the company’s efforts to “go green” political? How about its support of specific issues or candidates? A policy needs to define political discussion and use concrete examples so that employees understand their boundaries.
Types of Expression
Is the company policy only about political discussions, or does it extend to screen savers, posters or flags in someone’s office, clothing with political words and images, pins and buttons, emails, and other political expressions? Employees need to know their boundaries.
In addition, a policy should delineate whether discussions are allowed on breaks and lunch hours, for example. Can they discuss politics in the company cafeteria, or is any company property off-limits? Can they be disciplined for using company property in a political way, such as sending a personal political email using their work computer?
Also, a political expression policy should address whether campaigning or soliciting donations for a cause or candidate at work is allowed. Many employers have a general no-solicitation policy already in force, which would also apply to political causes.
Political Expression Outside the Office
Everyone has read about a person being reprimanded or fired because of something they do on their own time but that was politically motivated. Social media can make even the simplest interaction a viral sensation under the right circumstances. Employers do not want to look bad by association.
On the other hand, to what extent does an employer have the right to mandate an employee’s words or actions outside of work? This is a fine line and a hot topic that employers should address from both legal and business aspects.
As far as existing laws, an employer cannot interfere with employees who want to discuss their wages or organize collectively. Other than that, most companies are free to enact policies and guidelines around political discussion, hate speech, bullying, and similar topics.
Political discussion in the workplace could also be cause for legal liability issues. For example, a conversation about candidates will often involve their race, gender, age, or religion, which are protected under the law. Discussions can become potential grounds for harassment or other forms of workplace discrimination or retaliation.
Support for Company Views or Candidates
Legislation or candidates can directly affect a company’s business or operations. It is not uncommon for companies to publicly support or not support specific legislation or political candidates. A workplace political discussion policy should address the company’s rights, under federal election laws, including whom they can solicit to support the company’s views or candidates.
A workplace political discussion policy should include a formal process for employees to report the offending behavior. Most employers allow anonymous complaints, but many prefer to follow up on a complaint when they know who made it.
A policy should include clear repercussions for violations. For example, does an employee get more than one chance? Are they put on probation after a first offense and fired after the second? Employees need to know what to expect if they violate company policy.
Can My Employer Fire Me for My Political Beliefs?
In many cases, if not most, the answer is yes. Federal laws do not protect an employee’s political beliefs in the workplace as they protect their age, race, gender, and other attributes. A handful of states have laws that protect an employee from adverse employment actions based on their political views. Pennsylvania is not one of them.
For most private employers, employment is at will. That means a company can let someone go for whatever reason they choose. They would never formally reveal that someone was let go because of their politics, but they can and do fire people because of political beliefs.
Of course, if a company has a formal policy about political expression in the workplace, they can always say your dismissal was because of policy violation if that is indeed true.
Philadelphia Employment Discrimination Lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C., Fight for Employee Rights
The Philadelphia employment discrimination lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates P.C., believe that no one should suffer discrimination, retaliation, or other adverse action on the job. If you feel you have been treated unfairly or unlawfully, call us today for a free consultation: 215-569-1999 or contact us online. Call us today at 215-569-1999 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Philadelphia and Pennsauken, New Jersey, we serve clients throughout South Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania, including Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Northeast Philadelphia, Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County, and Montgomery County.