Between all of the protests, marches, twitter debates, and late show sketches, 2017 has thus far been a turbulent time for politics, regardless of your political orientation, party, or viewpoint, or those of colleagues, employees, and coworkers. Most businesses, however, would prefer that office staff focus on work and leave politics at home.
But when news is breaking daily and feelings are strong, especially on hot-button issues, what can employers do to help office employees avoid unnecessary friction without crossing the line into regulating political perspectives or freedom of speech?
The “Right to Free Speech”
One of the biggest misconceptions is that employees are permitted to do and say anything they want at the workplace under the guise of “freedom of speech.” This is a myth. The First Amendment applies only to government action and does not at all address or limit the rights of private employers to regulate employees’ communications. It similarly does not provide employees with a right to express their political views citing “free speech.” There is no such thing as “free speech” at work. That being said, it is unlawful in California to discriminate, harass, retaliate against, or terminate an employee specifically because of their political views.
Limits of Regulating Employee Politics
Many employers do have policies limiting political discussions at work, to avoid problems between management and employees, or employee disputes. However, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has consistently sought to limit employer attempts to curb employee political activities and viewpoints that relate to the workplace. When employers moved to discipline employees for statements made on social media, the NLRB backed employees as long as their statements dealt with workplace conditions.
What Can a Business Do?
If your business needs to tone down political speech and political activities at work, there are certain steps you can take that will usually help curtail such activities:
- Remind employees that work email and workstations are supposed to be used for work purposes and not other purposes. This means that if they are emailing each other pictures, memes, news articles, surveys, or using work time for social media posting purposes, it would violate your company’s acceptable use policies governing how employees are to use company equipment, internet services, computers, etc.
- Remind employees that work time is actually supposed to be used for work time. Many employees keep their cell phones in laps, on their desks, etc., and spend the entire day texting/posting/surfing the Internet. This not only leads to terrible inefficiencies, but it can build resentment among workers who are diligent in performing their duties. Repeat offenders should be written up and subject to the company’s discipline if they cannot stay focused.
- If there are employees wearing or posting inflammatory signs, buttons, or other paraphernalia that expresses their political views on candidates or specific topics, you can implement policies that either altogether omit or restrict office decorations. This should be done in a “content-neutral” way, so as to not give the impression that you only want certain voices and viewpoints to be toned down.
- Finally, mind safety issues. Employees can sometimes go too far and advocate viewpoints that cross the line, which can include writing emails or social media posts that advocate violence, “killings,” or some other statement that conveys danger or other inappropriate behavior, especially involving the workplace, or if made using workplace computers and/or equipment. Obviously, there is a fine line between joking/parodies and real threats, and that line is always subject to interpretation. When in doubt, consult with legal counsel to determine whether the right judgment call is being made.
It is important to remember that, whatever you do, not to regulate what employees do after hours, such as attending protests, marches, or what they post on social media accounts.
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