Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Where do we draw the line on political speech in the workplace?

November 7th, 2016 | Angelic Papacalos

17547163106_3874c2b4d7_k_2This year’s election has stirred up a lot of controversy, arguably more than the most recent elections. Everyone is talking about the election, whether it is in person or online. Sex, politics, religion, money; these are things we were told not to talk about, especially at work. But now, in this new age of technology, even if we don’t talk about it at the office people can still find out our views if we post online. What rules apply to the workplace and where do we draw the line?

 

Political speech

There seems to be a fine line between what type of political speech is and is not acceptable in the workplace. Federal Law prohibits government employers from restricting free speech in the workplace because of the 1st Amendment. However, private employers do not have the same restriction. In some states, employers may be able to express their political beliefs as long as they are not coercing any employees to vote for or contribute funds to a specific candidate. However, encouraging donations is fine. Other places only allow a company to express its beliefs by expressing its views on which side of each issue is best for the future of the company. Are employees held to the same standard?

What can employees talk about at work? Friends talk about politics outside of work, but what if you are friends with your coworkers? Some employees may be fine with talking about politics with each other. However, if these conversations happen at work where other employees can hear them, they might be offending someone. Employers can regulate as they see fit through their own workplace policies but there aren’t any laws governing this. Some might think offensive political speech would amount to a hostile working environment. However, federal and state laws do not consider political speech as a basis to prove a workplace is hostile. Should employees be able to talk about politics that deal with workers rights, like health care, minimum wage laws, and working conditions? Do employers have the right to restrict this type of speech through their policies? And what happens when someone’s views differs than the boss’s?

Retaliation and discrimination

There are only a few states with laws prohibiting retaliation against employees for their political beliefs. Employees may be fired or passed up for promotions just for having opposing political beliefs from their boss. Even if an employee doesn’t talk about their beliefs at work, an employer can use what they find on the Internet against you. If you post political speech on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other form of social media, your employer can find out about it. But what about your coworkers, can they discriminate against you?

A recent article talked about coworkers using political speech to harass a Hispanic woman. They changed her computer screensaver to pictures of Trump. They also told her to go back to Mexico and called her an illegal immigrant, even though she was born in America. This woman was eventually fired and told, “Illegal immigrants can’t vote or work. Good luck finding a job.” Is this political speech enough to consider the workplace hostile, even though the law doesn’t recognize this as a basis for discrimination? This woman and her lawyers are not taking that chance. They are filing a lawsuit against the company for racial discrimination, which is actually recognized by federal and state law. How do we stop these things from happening when race becomes such a major topic in political debates?

Solutions

If political speech is so controversial, why not ban it from the workplace? Do we ban all of it or just what may cause employees to feel uncomfortable? Many private companies have their own regulations, but how do they efficiently regulate it? Employees donate money and time to political campaigns, post to social media, and vote outside of work on their own time. Now that we can access technology anywhere, should employers ban political speech online during work hours? Should certain websites be blocked or monitored?

What about voting privileges? Most states require employers to allow employees to take time off work to vote. Some states are stricter than others by restricting how much time can be taken off work, the amount of notice required, or by including exceptions, but employers must comply. If they have to let employees vote during work hours, can they really regulate anything else they do during this time?

For more information about voting rights in each state visit WorkplaceFairness.org.

Angelic Papacalos is a law student at American University Washington College of Law and an intern for Workplace Fairness.

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