Can your employer forbid you from talking politics at work?

Protests, Chaos Capture 2016 Conversation
Protests, Chaos Capture 2016 Conversation

With the presidential election heating up, you're probably hearing a lot more political talk at work than usual. Whether you're a political junkie who's delighted to debate issues with your co-workers or someone who wants to leave the room every time your colleagues start sharing their viewpoints on the candidates, you might wonder what the boundaries are on politics in the workplace. Here's a quick primer on what kind of political discussion your employer has to allow, where it can intervene and how you should manage your own politics when it comes to your job.

Can your employer restrict political speech at work? "Private-sector employers may generally impose broad limits on employees' political activities and discussions during working hours, even if other types of personal activities are permitted," says Dan Prywes, partner in the District of Columbia office of the law firm Bryan Cave.

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However, federal law also protects employees' right to discuss labor issues – wages and working conditions – with each other. So employers need to tread carefully here. They can't ban you from urging co-workers to support Candidate X "because she supports higher wages." But those same protections don't apply if you take labor issues out of the discussion. For instance, you're urging people to support Candidate X "because she's strong on foreign policy" or for another reason not connected to labor issues.

What should you do if a co-worker won't stop hassling you about politics? If a co-worker is annoying you by constantly talking about politics, try simply asking the person to stop. You might say, "I'd rather not discuss politics at work" or "We feel differently, and I'd rather keep our political viewpoints out of our work relationship."

If your co-worker persists after this, you might consider asking your manager to step in, pointing out that it's distracting and unwelcome. Good managers don't want people getting hassled about politics at work, and they especially don't want people ignoring their colleagues' direct requests to cut it out.

Can your employer pressure you to vote for or donate to a particular candidate? Federal law prohibits employers from coercing you to vote a certain way or contribute money to candidates or political action committees. And they're prohibited from threatening to discipline or fire you if you don't. Some states, such as New Jersey and Oregon, also have laws that prevent employers from compelling employees to participate as a "captive audience" in employer-sponsored political events.

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However, "following the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United, employers have a greater ability to communicate their political views and preferences to employees, and spend money to support a candidate, as long as that is not coordinated with a political campaign," says Prywes. That means that you might be stuck hearing about your employer's politics, but you should be free to ignore those communications if they don't interest you.

Can your employer discriminate against you because of your political beliefs or your political activities outside of work? In most states, employers can indeed discriminate based on political preferences. "This means that a manager could schedule Trump supporters for more lucrative shifts, or could assign less desirable projects to Hillary supporters," says Prywes.

But a few states, such as California, do ban employers from discriminating on the basis of political views or affiliations. In these states, there are still typically exceptions if your activities create a conflict of interest with your employer's business interests. For example, newspapers are generally allowed to prohibit reporters from campaigning for particular candidates since they have a business interest in appearing impartial.

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Given all this, what's the best advice for keeping political activity from interfering with your job? Prywes recommends three things. First, know your rights in the particular state you live in since state law varies so much on these issues. Second, conduct your political activity outside of work unless it's specifically linked to employment issues, such as discussing a candidate's stance on wages or working conditions. And third, "avoid issues that directly conflict with your employer's company-specific business priorities, or that compromise your employer's trade secrets or proprietary information," say Prywes.

If you do suspect that you're being illegally penalized for your political views, you have several options.

• If you believe that you're being penalized because you expressed political views relating to labor conditions, you can complain to the National Labor Relations Board.

• If you believe that a state law against political discrimination is being violated, you should generally start by complaining to the office of the state attorney general.

• If you have experienced coercion regarding voting, you can contact federal or state civil rights authorities.

• In some cases, you may also be able to bring a lawsuit against the employer.

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Originally published