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Political Expression at Work: Limit Distractions, but Allow Free Speech

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in Firing,Human Resources

THE LAW. The run-up to a national or local election can spark heated debate around the watercooler. Through no fault of yours, such a politically charged atmosphere can cause distractions and, in some cases, disputes and lawsuits.

Your organization has the legal right to control employees’ activities on the job. That includes putting a stop to political activism or political solicitations on the job. Employees are there to work, not to rally support for a candidate.

Don’t allow employees to claim that the First Amendment lets them say anything they want. Contrary to popular belief, the First Amendment doesn’t protect free speech in a private-sector workplace.

Where trouble can start, however, is if a court decides that your company retaliated against an employee because of his or her political expression. Why? Protecting an employee’s freedom of political expression is an important “public policy” concern, on par with protecting a worker who performs jury duty or files a workers’ comp claim.

WHAT’S NEW. More employers are actively encouraging grass-roots political activities among employees and retirees. Their goal: persuade employees to lobby for legislation or elect candidates that help the company’s bottom line.

Also, experts say that recent elections have produced some of the most polarizing speech and political activity in recent years, leading to more conflict as people share their political views at work.

HOW TO COMPLY. Your goal should be to balance the interest of employees’ free speech with maintaining order and productivity. Specifically, it’s not wise to put a complete gag order on all political discussions. Such a policy is impossible to enforce, plus it’ll choke morale and could actually open up your company to a lawsuit.

Instead, draft a policy that minimizes distractions yet allows a certain amount of free speech. Then explain the policy to the staff. Some tips:

1. Set a business reason for any restrictions. Limit only those political expressions that might harm productivity or customer relations. For example, you can ask a cashier to remove a “Legalize Marijuana” button, but you can’t ask an employee to remove his “Smith for Senator” car bumper sticker.

2. Be consistent and evenhanded. Inconsistency is tough to defend in court. For example, don’t make employees remove one candidate’s button, while allowing them to wear the buttons of another candidate.

3. Provide guidelines. Clearly tell employees that all workplace speech—political or otherwise—must be respectful, accommodating and tolerant of others’ views.

4. Don’t retaliate against off-duty political activity. In most states, employeesare protected against discrimination, harassment or firing based on their political views and activities conducted after-hours.

5. Never press employees to vote for a specific candidate. Almost every state forbids an employer from using threats of employment consequences to influence an employee’s vote.


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