Tis election season! And it is impossible to ignore the political debate that is unfolding in the media, on social networks, and in everyday conversation. Can and should employers restrict political discussion in the workplace? It depends.
Private employers enjoy wide latitude in determining whether and how to regulate employees’ expression of their political views in the workplace. Contrary to popular belief, employees in the private sector do not have a First Amendment right to discuss politics in the workplace. The Constitution applies only to governmental censorship of speech.
Generally, an employer’s goal is to keep employees comfortable and focused on work. After all, employees are paid to do a job, not campaign. Heated political debate or solicitation in the workplace is likely to have a negative effect on morale and productivity. But, political debate in the workplace may also expose an employer to liability. When co-workers discuss politics, employers may be exposed to claims of discrimination, retaliation or hostile work environment. After all, political views are often intertwined with an individual’s beliefs on hot button topics such as sex, religion, national origin, age, and disability. Consider how a co-worker’s unwelcome comment about a candidate’s age or religion might lead to a hostile work environment claim. Or, how a supervisor’s discipline of an employee for insubordination after an intense debate over a candidate’s pro life politics could expose an employer to a claim of retaliation.
Most employers do not have a formal policy governing political speech in the workplace. However, non-solicitation policies may be applicable to some forms of political speech. And, policies governing computer usage may be utilized to restrict employees using the e-mail system or accessing the internet for political purposes.
Some freedom of expression in the workplace is a good thing. However, employers should be aware of the hazards of political speech in the workplace. Expression of political beliefs may interfere with workplace efficiency, cause workplace disruption and even lead to claims of discrimination, retaliation, and harassment.