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.
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.
"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"
Dan Prywes, partner in the District of Columbia office of the law firm Bryan Cave
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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An attendee stands for a photograph while wearing a shirt in support of Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, not pictured, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, U.S., on Wednesday, March 30, 2016. After routing Hillary Clinton in three western-state Democratic caucuses, Sanders still faces daunting delegate math and a road ahead dominated by big-state primaries that have been the weakest link in his campaign. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A supporter wearing a t-shirt with US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attends a Trump rally at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, January 18, 2016. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
An attendee poses with her homemade shirt during US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's campaign rally at the American Airlines Center in Dallas on September 14, 2015. AFP PHOTO/LAURA BUCKMAN (Photo credit should read LAURA BUCKMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
RICHMOND, VA - OCTOBER 14: A young woman wears a Donald Trump t-shirt as thousands of people line up at the Richmond International Raceway to get into a political rally with presidential candidate and Republican front-runner Donald Trump October 14, 2015 in Richmond, Virginia. A New York real estate mogul and reality television star, Trump is now in a statistical tie with retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson in a Fox News survey of likely Republican voters released Tuesday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 29: A veteran in the audience shows his support for Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) during a campaign rally at the Intercontinental Buckhead Hotel in Atlanta, Ga., on February 29, 2016. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)
Attendees enter a campaign event for Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, Colorado, U.S., on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016. In the first Democratic debate on Thursday since her crushing defeat in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton tried a new approach to win back wavering supporters, capturing Bernie Sanders anger without looking angry. Photographer: Matthew Staver/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A supporter of Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas and 2016 presidential candidate, shows off his T-shirt while watching caucus results on television during the Cruz campaign's caucus night celebration at the Elwell Center on the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016. Cruz won the Iowa Republican caucuses in an upset over billionaire Donald Trump, while Democrat Hillary Clinton was clinging to the narrowest edge over Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
FALLON, NV - FEBRUARY 23: Walter Hogan poses for a portrait after participating in the Republican caucus at the Churchill County Fairgrounds on February 23, 2016 in Fallon, Nevada. The remaining Republican presidential candidates are seeking support from voters in Nevada's 'first in the West' caucus. (Photo by David Calvert/Getty Images)
FAIRFIELD, AL - FEBRUARY 27: Supporters look on as Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a 'Get Out The Vote' at Miles College on February 27, 2016 in Fairfield, Alabama. Hillary Clinton held a campaign rally in Alabama before returning to South Carolina for her South Carolina primary night event. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
OVERLAND PARK, KS - MARCH 02: A child shows his family support of Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) while waiting in a line outside Yardley Hall at Johnson County Community College before a campaign rally ahead of caucuses on March 02, 2016 in Overland Park, Kansas. Cruz is coming off wins in Texas, Oklahoma and Alaska in yesterday's Super Tuesday. (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 26 - Mark Knauer, from Des Moines, Iowa, listens as he wears a shirt donning Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders during a meeting with workers from the United Steelworkers Local 310L in Des Moines, Iowa, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
An attendee wears a campaign t-shirt for Donald Trump, president and chief executive of Trump Organization Inc. and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, during a Trump campaign rally at the Radford University Dedmon Arena in Radford, Virginia, U.S., on Monday, Feb. 29, 2016. The single biggest day of voting in the Republican primary is March 1, Super Tuesday, when nearly half of the delegates needed to secure the nomination are up for grabs with Trump favored in most of these contests. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
An attendee wears a Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, shirt during a campaign event in Exeter, New Hampshire, U.S., on Friday, Feb. 5, 2016. Democratic Party officials in Iowa say they can't do a recount of Monday's razor-thin presidential caucus results between Hillary Clinton and Sanders, even if they thought it was appropriate. And both candidates, in their debate later Thursday night, said it was no big deal. Photographer: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images
HENDERSON, NV - FEBRUARY 19: Alex Leichenger canvasses a neighborhood for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders on February 19, 2016 in Henderson, Nevada. Sanders is challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination ahead of Nevada's February 20th Democratic caucus. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
An attendee wears a shirt in support of Donald Trump, president and chief executive of Trump Organization Inc. and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, not pictured, during a campaign rally at the Port Columbus International Airport in Columbus, Ohio, U.S., on Tuesday, March 1, 2016. State officials were reporting strong turnout for Super Tuesday balloting, the closest thing yet to a national referendum on Trump, the brash New York billionaire who has thrown out the traditional rules of campaigning. Photographer: Ty Wright/Bloomberg via Getty Images
DOVER, NH - FEBRUARY 3: Robert Hodgman wore a 'Hillary for Prison 2016' shirt during a Marco Rubio town hall event at Cara Irish Pub in Dover, N.H. on Feb. 3, 2015. (Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 12: Republican presidential candidate and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush shows off a Reagan/Bush '84 tee-shirt as he speaks during a Miami field office opening on September 12, 2015 in Miami, Floria. Bush continues to campaign for the Republican nomination. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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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.