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Danger Ahead: Talking Politics at Work

October 26, 2020 | College

With less than one week until the election, law experts are in high demand by every major media outlet to provide insight and commentary on campaign ads, election laws, voting rights, candidate interviews, political tweets, town halls, and debates.

For many, the November 2020 elections can’t come soon enough. The anticipation of the results is fomenting discussions and arguments between family members, friends, and strangers. However, should these conversations spill over into the workplace? Does the First Amendment protect political speech in the workplace?

Many people are not aware of the role the First Amendment plays in the workplace, says Courtlyn Roser-Jones, assistant professor of labor and employment law. Roser-Jones teaches Employment Law; Regulating Workers in the “Gig” Economy; Labor and the Constitution; and Labor Law.

“A common misconception about the First Amendment is that it protects speech in any place,” says Roser-Jones. “It doesn’t. And that means a private employer is not prohibited from making rules or setting regulations about what is or isn’t appropriate for work discussions.”

Government employees have limited constitutional protection in their political speech. But even they can be disciplined when their speech substantially interferes with government operations and damages public trust. If you are not employed by the government, you can be disciplined or fired at the employer’s discretion for political speech, especially if coworkers or clients are offended or uncomfortable.

“Employees don’t have a Constitutional right to free speech or freedom of expression at work,” says Roser-Jones. “Moreover, there currently is no federal or state law that broadly protects all political speech of private employees.”

Roser-Jones recommends that employees tread carefully before initiating or taking part in political discourse. A private employer has the right to implement policies limiting political discussions in the workplace and may fire someone for something they say. For liability reasons, having a policy in place deterring political discussion makes sense, “especially if speech is later viewed as creating a hostile work environment for protected classes, such as women and members of racial and ethnic minority groups.” However, depending on surrounding circumstances, an employer may not have legal carte blanche for policy implementation says Roser-Jones. Depending on the employment terms already in place, the employer’s actions could be in violation of Civil Rights and labor law, or breach of contract obligations.

As for choosing to post political comments on Facebook and Twitter, proceed with caution and limit your viewing audience using privacy controls. “Employees often believe it’s safe to post their political views on social media that they’re often reluctant to express in the workplace,” says Roser-Jones, “but know that can get you in trouble as well.” The same rules apply to political speech posted on social media—employers might decide that your postings are harmful to their reputation or otherwise negatively impact the work environment.

In conclusion, Roser-Jones has some suggestions on how employees can handle political discussions at work during and after the election.

  • Try not to debate or lecture.

If you do decide to participate in political talk (which she does not advise), instead of focusing on hot-button issues or opinions about candidates, try to approach the discussion as a conversation. Ask non-confrontational questions, keep it as friendly and as lighthearted as possible.

  • Keep it brief.

If the subject of politics comes up, maybe it is best for people to make a few comments and then change the subject.

  • Know when to walk away.

Know when to walk away and agree to disagree.

  • Watch what you post on social media.

Don’t assume that because you’re off the clock on social media, your words can’t be used against you. If you are venting on the Internet, it’s good practice not to make those comments public or viewable to coworkers or your employer.