If You Want to Keep Your Job, Check Your Politics at the Door

office politicsThe 2010 elections seem to be raunchier and more scandalous than ever before. We have candidates talking about self-pleasuring, one-night stands, witchcraft, gays in Speedos, marijuana legalization -- even calling the opposition "bastards" and "whores." Bringing up any of those subjects in the workplace would never be a particularly savvy move, but it's all too easy for them to slip into common conversation during the current elections, as the media is all abuzz with these topics.

Unfortunately, if you bring one of these up, that could be the last conversation you ever have on the job.

The fact is, there are countless ways you can get fired for expressing your political views, and some of them will surprise you. Your right to "Freedom of Speech" has absolutely nothing to do with your boss's right to fire you.

"You may have a Constitutional right to free speech, but you better leave your passion for politics at the door if you like your job," says prominent Dallas attorney and legal expert Clint David. "In most states, your boss doesn't even need a reason to fire you. Don't be stupid. Think of something other than politics to talk about at the company water cooler."

According to a survey taken in 2008 by the Society of Human Resource Management, almost a quarter of the employers polled say they have written policies pertaining to their employees' political activities, and about 10 percent have unwritten policies. Whether a policy is stated or not, in most states you can be fired for any political statement your employer finds offensive, regardless of how harmless you may perceive it, although some unions offer protection.

You need look no further than the example of former NPR political commentator Juan Williams, who recently lost his job for mentioning a politically loaded topic on Fox News -- and he wasn't even on the NPR clock at the time. In many cases, you don't even have to be at place of employment to be fired for expressing your political views. It seems best to avoid expressing your controversial opinions in public at all, if they can be perceived in any way as a reflection on your employer.

Here are some examples of seemingly innocent actions that can lead to getting you fired:

  • Texting, tweeting or IMing your political beliefs during work hours, or on a company supplied smart phone: Even if you're forwarding a funny video or retweeting something, it could be seen as coming from your employer.
  • Even making a political Facebook post, if it's done on company time or from a company computer, can get you in trouble.
  • Sending political messages via a company e-mail address. Just to be on the safe side, if you're going to send politically charged e-mails, do them from a personal e-mail account, not your corporate account, even if you're sending it from home after hours.
  • Stating your religious beliefs as they pertain to political issues can be construed as hate speech. For example, openly expressing your negative feelings about gay marriage is especially risky now that bullying has become such a hot topic.
  • Stating your political beliefs to a subordinate, even when you're not on company time: They could feel that you're using your power to influence them, and if they file a complaint with human resources, some company policies would require action to be taken against you.
  • Discussing how you feel about issues or candidates in public when you're away from the office, but still perceived as representing your company. One worker, whose case is still being litigated, passed out politically charged fliers at a professional mixer and was immediately let go. His chances of being reinstated or getting a settlement do not look good.

If it feels as if you're obliged to walk on eggshells these days, you could be right. It may be frustrating, but that doesn't change the fact that caution is necessary.

In fact, the climate has become so heated this year that the only absolutely safe reference to politics may be wearing the little red, white and blue sticker that says, "I voted." If your colleague asks you how you voted, it's probably safest just to say, "by my conscience."

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