Who Has the Right to Argue Politics at the Office?
In this presidential election year, the old adage about the two things you should never discuss in polite conversation — religion and politics — has never been more true, especially considering how they’ve overlapped lately in the United States political discourse. In the workplace this is especially an issue. When people talk about about hot-button issues, passions tend to run high, and productivity-busting arguments occur.
The Houston Chronicle recently reported on some of the tricky office free-speech issues surrounding politics. “Employees have no right to free speech,” attorney David Barron told the Chronicle. That’s because freedom of speech applies to public spaces, not private property. He says it’s completely legal for employers to limit what employees are allowed to say in the office. In fact, he says “When it comes to things like race, gender, ethnicity, and religion, those are issues where an employer has a legal duty to take action if an employee complains.” All four of those topics are under discussion in Election 2016. The only free speech employees have is the right to discuss workplace issues under the National Labor Relations Act (NRLA).
However, though employees may not be able to express their political views, employers can push their point of view freely.
If a CEO invites a political candidate for a factory-floor campaign event, employees can be required to attend and even applaud for TV cameras. A boss can also encourage the display of a favored candidate’s posters or other campaign materials, and prohibit display of an opponent’s. The 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United ruling even allows employers to spend company funds to support candidates, regardless of employees’ views.
While this kind of thing undoubtedly bothers some employees, there’s no legal recourse because, Barron says, “Being offended by someone else’s political views is not illegal harassment the way it is for gender, race or ethnicity.” There’s some comfort in knowing, at least, that employees can’t legally be fired for how they vote.
Given how super-charged politics is at the moment, it’s probably best to keep them out of the office altogether. There’s no research, after all, suggesting that arguments and the bad feelings they leave behind are good for generating profits.