Do you know what the law says about handling workplace political discussions?
Here are four myths about politics in the workplace and what firms can and can’t do, courtesy of Kenneth R. Hannahs, Jr., and Aisha S. Sanchez from Ford & Harrison LLP:
- Workplace discussions about politics are protected by the First Amendment. Many workers believe they have a right to free speech in the workplace, but that’s not always the case.
The First Amendment only restricts government censorship of speech, and private sector employers can regulate or even ban political speech at work.
That being said, state and local laws may differ, so firms would do well to check those laws before writing or revising their stance on political talk in the workplace.
- The best way to regulate workplace political discussions is to ban them entirely. If you forbid political discussions in the workplace, that guarantees you won’t run into any problems, right? Wrong.
Not only is a blanket ban on political talk unenforceable and impractical, but it could also hurt morale (think Big Brother) and even get you in trouble with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
Better bet: Suggest to employees that they limit their discussions to break times and in nonwork areas (such as cafeterias). Explain why discussions in work areas could be a disruption for business.
- It’s legal to ban political solicitations, the distribution of political material and the wearing of political paraphernalia in the workplace. It’s true that employers generally can forbid employees from distributing solicitations for support of candidates as well as political paraphernalia.
But the NLRB has found that some forms of political advocacy are protected under the National Labor Relations Act.
Specifically, an employee’s actions may be protected if he or she is participating in political activity about employment concerns during non-work time and in non-work areas.
Furthermore, firms can prohibit the displaying of political items at work, but not if they’re union related.
The example Hannahs, Jr., and Sanchez give: You can prohibit a “Vote for Obama” t-shirt but not a t-shirt that says “(Union) Supports Obama.”
- Federal law requires firms give workers time off to vote. Surprisingly, there’s no federal law requiring companies to grant workers time to vote, though there are numerous state and local laws that do. Again, it’s important to review the relevant voting leave laws that apply to your organization to determine what you can and can’t do.