The run-up to a national or local election can spark heated debate around the watercooler. That can cause distractions, disputes—and, in some cases, lawsuits.
You have the legal right to control employees’ activities on the job. That includes putting a stop to political activism or political solicitations at work.
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.
Protect rights, stay productive
Your goal should be to balance the interest of employees’ free speech with maintaining order and productivity. Don’t declare a complete ban on all political discussions. That’s impossible to enforce, plus it will choke morale and could actually open up your company to a lawsuit.
Instead, draft a policy that minimizes distractions yet allows reasonable free speech. Follow these guidelines:
1. Set a business reason for restrictions. Limit only political expressions that might harm productivity or customer relations. For example, you can ask a cashier to remove a “Smith for Senate” button from her blouse, but you can’t ask her to remove a “Smith for Senate” bumper sticker from her car that’s parked in your lot.
2. Be consistent and evenhanded. 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, employees are 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 all states forbid employers from using threats of employment consequences to influence an employee’s vote.