On the heels of 4th of July, and with off-cycle election season quickly approaching, you may be finding yourself in a few more political conversations than usual. Talk at weekend BBQ’s, family gatherings—even checkout line chatter seem to land on politics.
But what about the workplace? Hot topics are still buzzing, but how much can employees engage in political conversations at work? If there is a line, what happens if it’s crossed?
Can you actually fire—or be fired—for talking politics at work?
Many assume First Amendment protection, but free speech isn’t so simple. According to writer Stacey Lastoe at The Muse, “There’s free speech, and then there’s free speech in the workplace.”
Private vs. Public
Private and public employers operate by different sets of rules. Private employers can generally set regulations about what is or isn’t appropriate for workplace discussions. There is not an inalienable First Amendment right in a private employer’s workplace.
Examples of private-sector employment areas include financial services, law firms, estate agents, newspapers and hospitality. Examples of public-sector employment areas include government employment, some healthcare, teaching, emergency services, armed forces and civil services.
Because politics are so polarizing, private organizations can easily and justly prohibit political discussions while at work. However, federal law also protects employees’ right to discuss labor issues with each other (i.e. wages and working conditions).
So the line is hazy—as guidelines pertain to specific topics of political conversation. For example, employees are protected if discussing support for a candidate who promotes higher wages. But as soon as the conversation switches to a candidate’s stance on foreign policy, those same protections technically don’t apply.
So what actually happens if an employee discusses politics in the office?
Of course the political answer is, it depends. There are a few variables that determine potential consequences:
- Your state. You might work in a state where the law protects employees from workplace discrimination based on political affiliation or extends other protections that would tend to protect you from being fired for talking about politics. Click here to read the different laws for each state regulating politics in the workplace.
- NLRA protection. Most employers are covered by the National Labor Relations Act, which makes it unlawful to fire employees for participating in “concerted activity.” (Read our article about concerted activity on social media here.) If employees are discussing how they might improve the terms and conditions of their employment, or the previously mentioned labor issues, NLRA protection is granted.
- The situation. Bosses have the right to call out employees chatting on the clock. Politics aside, if an employee is not working when they’re supposed to be working, it may be cause for disciplinary action. If discussions are “creating a disruption,” this can also lead to discipline.
Takeaways for Employers
Be clear and aware. Make sure your organization has everything spelled out—what is expected of employee talk and behavior at work, how employees should use the internet on the job, social media policies, etc.
Be aware of your state’s laws and work with HR on communication of what is and isn’t allowed. (Need help with HR? That’s our thing! Contact us today and see how our PEO model can lighten your administrative load.)
Takeaways for Employees
Know the rules. Be careful of how you’re using work time and remember that regardless of your political opinion, you’re at risk if you’re posting it during work hours. Remember that even out of the office, you represent your company and behaving professionally is good practice.
Being an employee doesn’t require you abandon political causes you care about either! Simply set your social media accounts to private and make sure not to link yourself to your company—make it clear you’re representing only yourself.
Both employers and employees have the responsibility of pursuing shared goals for the good of their company. The good news is, that responsibility can easily be carried out apart from politics. Our best advice? Your #1 issue at work, should be work.