In the days after the 2016 election, conversation shifted at work from upcoming projects to the outcome. Nothing felt more important than what was happening in our country and I openly discussed how I felt with several co-workers. Additionally, I took my thoughts to social media. It’s safe to say no one walked away from a conversation with me unsure about where I stood politically.
I recognize that I’m employed by the kind of organization that encourages people to be themselves (as long as being themselves doesn’t translate to being disrespectful toward others). But speaking to friends in less open environments, I learned that there weren’t candid conversations, that a few hushed words were spoken and then never broached again.
For most I know, it was back to business as usual. This was partially because they worked at companies in which this wasn’t considered appropriate, and partially because people feared that speaking up could get them into trouble. Worst-case scenario: It could get them fired.
At first I rolled my eyes, because thanks to free speech you couldn’t actually lose your job for expressing your political views, right?
That would be wrong. There’s free speech, and then there’s free speech in the workplace.
So the First Amendment Doesn’t Apply When I’m at Work?
Eric Kluger, General Counsel at The Muse, explained the complicated nature of the First Amendment, pointing out that a common misconception is that it protects speech in any place. 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.
And guess what? Politics, given it’s often polarizing effect, is easily one of those topics that a private organization could justly determine isn’t to be discussed while you’re on the company’s dime.
What Happens if I Do Discuss Politics at the Office?
According to Helen D. (“Heidi”) Reavis and Deena R. Merlen, partners with the law firm Reavis Parent Lehrer LLP, the answer is, “It depends.”
For starters: Where do you work? As Reavis and Merlen explained, you might work in a state where the law protects employees from workplace discrimination based on political affiliation or extends other protections that would tend to protect you from being fired for talking about politics.
Another variable is whether your political talk falls within the protection of the federal National Labor Relations Act (the “NLRA”). Assuming that you and your employer are covered by the NLRA—which generally would be the case, with a few exceptions, as Merlen noted—it would be unlawful for your boss to fire you for participating in what the NLRA calls “concerted activity” for mutual aid or protection (like when workers speak among themselves about how they might improve the terms and conditions of their employment).
This sort of “free speech” right under the NLRA can overlap with talking politics at the office. For example, let’s say you’re speaking with co-workers about your company’s refusal to provide paid parental leave and you’re expressing support for Candidate A because you believe he’ll implement parental-leave policies that you and your co-workers stand to benefit from. Talking about this workplace issue is arguably your right under the NLRA—you are protected even though within the discussion you’re talking politics.
But then there’s the sensitive matter of not working when you’re supposed to be working, and mandated breaks aside, if you’re engaging in political chatting on social media or even just talking to co-workers throughout the workday, you could, technically, get called out for it by your boss. It may not be because of the topic, but it’s nonetheless problematic.
The takeaway? It’s a smart move to limit non-working activities throughout the workday, lunch or coffee breaks aside.
How Do I Know if My Company Cares About This One Way or the Other?
Best-case scenario is that your organization has spelled out how the internet can be used on the job, but if it hasn’t, it’s a good idea to ask HR for some clarification so you know what’s allowed and what isn’t. It’s also a good idea to look beyond company policy and make sure you’re aware of your state’s laws because the ways these protect you as a working professional can vary quite a bit.
Laws? Are There Any Laws to Protect Me?
Even though you don’t have all your First Amendment rights in the office, there are a lot of protections. Some states even consider one’s political affiliation a protected class. The nonprofit Workplace Fairness can help you understand your rights and what laws apply to you based on where you live and work.
Does This Apply to Social Media?
Your company can have a policy that prohibits employees from using social media during work hours (although you should still be able to engage in the sort of activities protected by the NLRA or other potentially applicable laws).
There’s some murkiness here, though, since many people regularly go onto their social media pages from their own phones, or they scroll through non-work related sites while they’re eating lunch at their desk.
For example, if your boss suddenly tells you to stop posting on Facebook when you’re supposed to be working, and you assume he’s only made that request because he doesn’t align with your recent political postings, you could view it as singling you out and retaliatory—when, in fact, perhaps you shouldn’t have been online at all.
If you’re in a location where you are protected from discrimination at work on the basis of political opinion or affiliation, and you experience negative treatment at work because of it, then it could be the employer facing an issue with the law.
What About When I’m Out of the Office?
What you do outside of the office is your time. Mostly. Even when you’re not working, you’re representing your company, and behaving professionally is good practice, which is why, in spite of some protections, it’s in your best interest to privatize any social media accounts you don’t want your employer to see.
Also, as political talk can grow heated, be mindful if your social media exchanges or other communications with co-workers, even outside of work, could potentially violate company policies about not harassing or bullying other employees. Some policies apply 24/7, not just from nine to five.
OK, How Do I Participate in Causes I Care About Without Losing My Job?
If you want to be involved and actively participate in supporting causes and people you believe in, you don’t have to abandon or dismiss your politics, you simply need to be smart about it.
For starters, when you’re at work, be at work and make that your focus. Reavis says, “Don’t forget, that’s why they call it work. Someone else is paying you for your time, so be mindful of that. Or, you will have a lot more time on your hands to discuss politics!”
When you’re out the office, make the privacy setting your pal, and if you’re going to marches or protests, don’t do anything stupid like wear a T-shirt with the company logo. Make it clear you’re only representing yourself.
It’s all fine and well to say that you wouldn’t want to work for a person or company with drastically differing values than your own, but when it comes down to it, is that really a move you’d be willing to take? Those bills aren’t going to pay themselves. I’m not saying this to shame you into staying quiet, but rather to make you aware of the risk you might be taking when you speak up at the office.
At the end of the day, caring about the work you do and investing your time and efforts into helping the company you work for is key. As Reavis says, “Both employees and employers should make more of an effort to put politics aside in pursuing shared goals and for the good of the company.” If everyone followed this sentiment, things might just be a lot less complicated.