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Expressing political views at work might be risky

  • Published Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012, at 12 a.m.

As the 2012 political races heat up, just about everyone seems willing to share their opinions on the candidates and issues – whether they’re asked to or not.

For many of the nation’s workers, this can lead to uncomfortable situations or outright arguments while on the job. Responding with a personal opinion might seem like second nature, but it might also be risky, career-wise.

Employers generally have the right to limit employees’ political commentary during work time, and many of them choose to do so, given the often heated nature of the subject. Workers should always use common sense when deciding whether to discuss political issues at work, but there are some situations in which employees should definitely steer clear of such talk:

1. When the business owner or boss is vocal about his or her own beliefs.

In many states, private employers may fire workers for their political beliefs. Under the at-will employment doctrine, in the absence of a contract, employers can terminate employment at any time and for any reason not prohibited by law. Every state except Montana subscribes to the at-will doctrine. Under this principle, organizations don’t need “just cause” to fire someone. If local or state law doesn’t prohibit it, private employers generally may terminate an individual because of his or her political beliefs. The First Amendment, however, restricts public employers from engaging in this practice.

Most private employers won’t typically terminate employees for their political beliefs. The bad publicity from such actions usually outweighs any perceived benefits.

Some states, such as Wisconsin, prohibit employers from taking action on employees’ legal activities, such as running for office or voting. If the discussions are union related, they might also be protected.

Yet, employees should still be cautious. A business owner or manager who is strongly invested in his or her political beliefs could discipline or terminate others with opposing viewpoints.

2. When it wastes time.

Many employers recognize that restricting all non-work-related conversations can have a detrimental effect on morale, but if employees are spending large amounts of time debating the pros and cons of particular candidates when they should be working, an employer is going to take notice and likely take action.

Employers generally have control over what employees may and may not do on company property and on work time.

3. When discriminatory language is involved.

Employers have a duty to prevent and address discrimination in the workplace. If employees are holding inappropriate discussions about a candidate’s sex, age, race, religion, ethnicity or other protected traits, the employer will likely want to take action.

A business may be held liable for fostering a hostile work environment if it does not halt such conduct.

Because of the legal ramifications, most employers take discrimination in the workplace seriously and will respond accordingly.

4. When representing the company.

If an employee is passing himself or herself off as a company representative, or even sporting company logos (on a shirt, hat, etc.) while giving a personal interview, an employer likely has the right to act. Such actions could give customers and others the impression that the employee’s beliefs are those of the company.

So all employees, and employers, should think before speaking.

When faced with a workplace situation involving political debate, it can be hard to consider the effects of statements prior to making them. But taking a moment to think about the consequences of certain political discussions might be the best way for employees to safeguard their jobs.

Employees and employers should consider the career risks of bringing politics to work.

Rebecca Bentz is a human resources subject matter expert and associate editor at J.J. Keller & Associates Inc., a Wisconsin-based company that provides guidance to businesses regarding government regulations.

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