Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

It's an Election Year, and Your Employer Wants You to Vote--Wonder Why?

March 23rd, 2004 | Paula Brantner

It’s a Presidential election year, and accordingly the politically active among us are intensifying their “get out the vote” (GOTV) efforts, which until November will operate at a fevered pitch. Especially after the 2000 election, where the nation saw a scant handful of votes decide the presidency, both political parties know the importance of getting as many individuals registered to vote as possible, and motivating those who are registered to go to the polls on Election Day. Now there’s word of a powerful new player in the GOTV world: major employers, who are disseminating information to their employees to encourage more voting. Guess whose interests those employers hope their employees’ votes will favor? That’s right: the employer.

Union groups have long been known (and feared) for their successful voter registration and GOTV efforts, which turn out many voters who support union-endorsed positions and candidates on election day. Given labor’s traditional support for Democrats, business interests, which traditionally lean more Republican, have longed for an alternative which would enable them to mobilize their own forces during elections. After successful pilot projects in 2000 and 2002, business groups may have found a solution: providing customized Web sites for workers to download voter-registration forms and apply for absentee ballots. The sites also direct company employees to other web sites that show how candidates for federal office have voted compared with the companies’ position. (See Washington Post article.)

This is a very concerted effort involving many if not most of our nation’s largest employers and business groups. Of the 150 companies that belong to the Business Roundtable, an organization representing the chief executives of the nation’s largest corporations (employing 10 million employees collectively), 99 are participating in the voter registration program this year, up from only 27 two years ago. A majority of the Association Committee of 100, a group that comprises the biggest trade associations in the country, are also operating versions of the program. The Business Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC) plans to increase the number of companies and associations that use its voter program to at least 500 this year, up from 184 in 2002. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says its version of the effort will be used by 129 companies and trade associations, up from 50 two years ago. Given the exponential rise in use of these types of programs, if their use is deemed successful in this fall’s election, the numbers are only certain to rise until these programs are as ubiquitous as HR departments and employee handbooks.

What’s the harm presented by these programs? After all, as Sara Lee of the California Chamber of Commerce (apparently no relation to the food conglomerate) points out, “Employers are members of communities like everyone else, so they have every right to take stands on issues and candidates.” (See East Bay Business Times article.) Well, not exactly. Federal laws prohibit companies from expressly supporting the election or defeat of candidates to their rank-and-file workers, and can only communicate on a limited basis to their senior executives. (See section 441b of the Federal Election Campaign Act.)

But what’s more, in this economic climate, the greater the chance that employees will feel coerced to support the employer’s interests, rather than their own (to the extent those interests might otherwise be very different.) After all, if you believe that your job’s at stake, as one candidate is more likely than the other to support policies affecting your employer’s industry, or if you know that you won’t get ahead in your company without wholeheartedly and enthusiasticly supporting your employer’s candidate of choice, what are you going to do? Sure, your vote in the election booth is ultimately private, but your expressions of support, verbal, financial or otherwise, may not be allowed to be private as well.

The law only offers very limited protection for employees retaliated against for their political views. Only a handful of states, such as California, New York (see sect. 201(d)) and the District of Columbia, ban discrimination on the basis of political activity or affiliation, while a scant few others prohibit discrimination based on lawful activity outside work, which could be interpreted to include political work outside the workplace. So why you might think it would be illegal for your employer to fire you for having different political views, in most cases, you would be wrong. And while it’s unlikely that an employer will fire all employees, for example, who maintain voter registrations opposite to that of the owner or president, it doesn’t seem so unlikely that some employers will find a way to retaliate against the most vocal opponents or least enthustiastic supporters of the employer’s favorite candidate or issue.

What’s the solution — other than finding a new job with a more compatible employer, which is hardly an option for most? First, it’s probably best to say as little as possible at work if you fear your political views may be a problem for your employer: there’s a reason that people are recommended to discuss politics and religion as little as possible at work. Remember that your political views, as ultimately expressed at the polls, can remain as private as you choose to keep them. Also, remember that your employer’s political interests, as a business owner, may not ultimately be compatible with your own, as an employee, so evaluate any election-related materials provided by the employer with a healthy dose of skepticism until you determine that your views and interests are compatible. There are a wide variety of groups out there who will provide election-related information in the months ahead, and so finding information compatible with your own interests and views should not be difficult to do.

While Workplace Fairness’ nonprofit status also limits what information we can provide about candidates, there will be no shortage of information available on this site about the issues likely to be the focus of this presidential election. Later this year, we will release “Workplace Fairness Now!,” designed to educate American workers on key workplace issues. Right now on our site, you can view a wide variety of news stories about the candidates’ views and statements on job-related issues at our “Eye on the Election” section of the site. And if you’re not registered to vote, you don’t need to wait for your employer to provide information: you can get the voter registration information you need right here on the Workplace Fairness website: Register to Vote.

Don’t let your employer’s interests cloud what’s best for you as an American worker: plan now to vote for the candidate who you feel will do the best job at protecting American jobs and preserving your rights as a worker.

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