Expressing Political Views in the Workplace: What Employers Should Know

by Anne Zachritz

The first debate of the very polarizing 2016 presidential campaign is tonight.  Radically opposing political viewpoints can create conflict and disruption among employees and disrupt the workplace. As with any other workplace conflict, employers should attempt to treat employees’ opinions with respect.  However, there is no constitutional guarantee of free speech in a private workplace.  Thus, private employers may stop or prohibit political discussions if employees’ differing viewpoints take the form of disparaging the political stances of other employees, and there is no law prohibiting employers from disciplining employees simply for discussing politics in the workplace.  

Employers should be mindful, however, that some forms of political discussion may constitute protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).  For instance, if an employee states that he supports a particular candidate because he believes that the particular candidate’s policies will result in better pay and better leave policies at his place of employment, that speech is protected concerted activity.  Under the NLRA, activity is "concerted" if it is engaged in with or on the authority of other employees, not solely by and on behalf of the employee himself.  It includes circumstances where a single employee seeks to initiate, induce, or prepare for group action, as well as where an employee brings a group complaint to the attention of management. Activity is "protected" if it concerns employees' interests as employees, although the otherwise protected concerted activity may lose the NLRA’s protection if the employee is engaged in workplace misconduct.

The protection provided by the NLRA for the employee’s concerted activity extends to communications on social media.  We all know that many people make statements on social media which they likely would not make in the workplace.  However, if employees are engaged in political discussion on Facebook (or other platform) as it applies to their pay and working conditions, employers should be wary of disciplining employees.  Rather, as with all workplace conduct, employers should set reasonable expectations and set a tone of respect and reason.

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