How much freedom of speech is allowed in the workplace?
The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) recently fined basketball teams Indiana Fever, New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury and their players after the women wore all-black warmup gear to support the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Due to public outcry against the decision, the WNBA later removed the fine. However, the issue sparked a debate across the country: Should employees be allowed to express their political views in the workplace? Is one’s freedom of speech protected even while on the job?
Rob Wilson, President of Employco USA and H.R. expert says, “In today’s acrimonious political climate, an employee’s right to free speech is a very important topic. Managers around the country need to become aware of what speech is legally protected in the workplace and what steps they should take to tighten up policies regarding political discourse in the office.”
Here, Wilson outlines what employers and employees need to know:
1) Employees’ rights are quite limited. Wilson says, “Unless you work for a state or federal employer, you do not have legal protections when it comes to expressing your views. Whether you are pro-Trump or pro-Clinton, if you work for a private employer, you are not promised the right to share your views without impunity.”
2) Few states make it illegal to discriminate against an employee based on their political affiliation. “Only a handful of states expressly state that employers are not allowed to discriminate based on an employee’s political views,” says Wilson. “And only two states make it illegal to discriminate against an employee’s ‘lawful conduct outside of work.’”
3) Employers are allowed to express support for candidates—up to a point. “If your boss is always sending out emails about Hillary or complaining about gun control laws, he is within his rights to do so,” says Wilson, “However, employers are not allowed to seek money for a candidate or to require you to attend political rallies or other events.”
4) Your social media could be scrutinized. “Unless you have an employment contract which says otherwise, your employer could penalize you for your online behavior,” says Wilson. “Whether it is a blog or your Twitter page, you could face trouble at work if your employer doesn’t like what you post. It’s important to understand the difference between freedom of speech and freedom from consequences when working for a private employer.”
5) Keep your employee handbook up to date and send an email reminder to your staff. “Employers have the right to ban disruptive conversations. They can also ban things like political buttons within their dress code policy. A no-soliciting policy will prevent employees from being able to seek signatures or funds for their desired candidate.”
Wilson concludes by saying, “There are several other steps a company should take in order to protect themselves and their staff. Plenty of other considerations are involved, including what falls under a person’s religious beliefs as well as how an employer can fairly investigate and handle any claims of disruptive discourse.”