Whether you are an employer trying to figure out how best to handle this political climate or an employee looking for advice on expressing opinions without putting your job at risk, things have certainly changed over the past year. As people become more engaged in politics, it is tempting for them to let that spill over into the workplace. People with a newfound passion for political engagement should beware, though. Free speech does not give you full immunity when it comes to keeping a job in the private sector and may not protect all civil servants, either.
Is There Free Speech in Private Workplaces?
In most cases, there is no free speech in a private workplace. A company almost universally has the right to fire you for expressing opinions that may be at odds with the company’s message or goals while at work. There are some protected activities, like reporting sexual harassment or filing a worker’s compensation claim, but most states allow employers to terminate an employee for just about anything. That’s the nature of “at-will employment.” The employee does not have any obligation to continue work for any amount of time, and the employer can let them go at any time, too.
Most employers can solve the situation by reminding employees that might be pushing those boundaries that the office is not going to be used as a platform to voice their political beliefs. You should find an experienced employment law attorney if you are employer with concerns about employees using this current political climate as an excuse to express views that negatively impact your business. It is certainly a situation that needs to be handled carefully and professionally, even if you are in an at-will employment state. You want to work with an expert in your state and clearly document every stage of the process so you are prepared should any claims arise.
States with Added Protections for Employees
Some states have passed laws to add protections for employees when they are not on the job. California has made it illegal to discriminate against an employee for any legal activities they engage in during off work hours. The employer may be required to reinstate and reimburse the employee in cases where they were demoted or discharged for legal off work activities. New York, Colorado and North Dakota have all added similar statutes that employers will have to carefully consider before terminating an employee for participating in political activities on off work hours or expressing controversial views on social media.
The Case of The Google Engineer
The recent firing of the now infamous Google engineer, James Damore, should serve as a clear warning to even the most experienced employees. Freedom of speech does not mean that you are free from repercussions from your employer for sharing those opinions. The case will be followed closely by employment law experts around the country as Damore attempts to pursue legal action against Google. However, a recent article in The Chicago Tribune makes a strong case that Google was well within their legal rights to terminate Damore for writing and publishing the letter.
The political climate has certainly presented some new challenges in many workplaces around the country. Employers need to carefully consider the legal statues in their state before terminating an employee that is expressing political opinions or participating in activities outside of work they deem harmful to the business. It is still best to start with clear communication of the expectations and policies around the workplace so that you can stop many issues before they start.