People are passionate about politics, but should we discuss politics at work? Emotions run high, people take things personally, and it’s hard to reconcile a team that can’t agree on outside (and usually unrelated) issues. When the news seems to be everywhere, it can also be hard to avoid. Here’s why you should avoid discussing politics at work and the legal ins-and-outs if you decide to anyway.
Everyone Gets Different News
Before the internet or 24-hour news channels existed, there were only a few TV channels and when everyone sat down to watch the news, we all watched the same news. What was on the news was the facts and that was the end of it. That doesn’t happen anymore. Between social media and a million TV channels available, it’s extremely easy for people to only trust a few sources and to dismiss the rest. People don’t have time to read and watch everything, and fact-checking requires time and patience.
The extreme polarization about what news we receive can lead to people being stuck in a filter bubble of their approved news source, leading to us being isolated from anyone who disagrees with us. After all, each website and TV station is still selling ads, so they need to keep you there scrolling as much and as long as possible. Discussing politics in an echo chamber is rewarding because there isn’t any personal conflict, and it confirms personal bias. If you never encounter the people who disagree with you except online (or not even there), what’s the problem with thinking your view is the main view? Except that people aren’t getting their news from the same sources anymore. Assuming they do can be detrimental to your employment.
Once you understand that not everyone is coming to the table with the same news, it makes more sense why people don’t get along. Employees don’t necessarily match their news source to their coworkers or their employer, which can lead to divisive conversations. It also can be a bad decision for employees to even bring up politics at work and here’s why:
What About The First Amendment?
The First Amendment about your freedom of speech doesn’t extend to when you’re working at a private company. It’s only about preventing the United States government from being able to censor your speech, not anyone else. It does not cover what private companies can do. This is why non-government entities like social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn can mute, remove, or ban users based on their own discretion.
Some states and municipalities do protect an employee’s right to political expression and their right to express their political opinion. Also, some states and municipalities do prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on their political beliefs and activity.
In general, private employers have the right to limit political expression during normal work hours. If you’re an employee of the state or the federal government then you have more legal protection than a private employee when it comes to speech and political activities.
Aren’t There Federal Anti-Discrimination Laws?
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 says that public demonstrations about discrimination or labor and working conditions are protected. It protects your age, national origin, race, ethnic background, gender, religious beliefs, and pregnancy from discrimination. If your political beliefs or activities are tied to one of those characteristics, then you might be protected under the law.
Race, national origin, religion, and sexual orientation are all federally protected classes, so an employer disciplining employee speech related to those areas could be perceived as illegal harassment or discrimination against members of those classes, depending on the context.
What About Discussing Pay?
The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 protects the right for private-sector employees to discuss their pay including pay rate, organize into trade unions, engage in collective bargaining for the whole group, and to strike. As of when this article was written, it does not apply to contract or temporary employees.
Can Employers Require Employees to Participate in Political Rallies?
Yes. Under the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, it states that while an employer can ban political discussions at work, they can also share their own political opinion at work and require employees to participate in political activities, but only if it’s on paid company time.
Can Employers Fire Employees for Participating in Political Rallies?
It depends on what state we’re talking about. In some states like California, New York, and Colorado, employers can’t fire employees who engage in lawful, politically related “off-duty” protesting. (It’s important that the word “lawful” is usually interpreted by the courts as “peaceful”.) If protestors don’t live in a protected state, then they’re out of luck – even if they weren’t convicted of a crime. For instance, someone charged with a drunk driving accident could lose their job without the employer waiting two years to find out the legal result.
Some companies have employment contracts that include the worker not bringing “reputational harm” to the business. This is why when athletes do something that hurts their image, they often lose company sponsorships. Some examples are Maria Sharapova with a drug scandal, Tiger Woods with his personal life, and Mike Tyson lost a fortune due to many events unrelated to boxing.
Don’t They Need a Reason to Fire Me?
It depends. If you’re an “at-will” employee (not protected by a contract or bargaining agreement), then no. According to the National Conference of State Legislature, “The U.S. is one of a handful of countries where employment is predominantly at-will. Most countries around the world allow employers to dismiss employees only for cause.” If you’re an “at-will” employee, then you can be fired for any reason at all, as long as it’s not discrimination based on race, age, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, or protected class such as pregnancy.
You Still Work There Tomorrow
Even if it’s not against the rules for you to discuss politics in your workplace, consider that you will still be working there with those same people. People get passionate about politics and candidates and often take these things personally. Anything you say that might upset them about a candidate may upset them personally. It will change how they see you and possibly how they work with you, negatively affecting your time there.
Airing your political views can also create a bias against you and your work. After all your hard work, it could end up going down the drain due to how someone else may view you. Spending your time and effort working with people who may like you less as a result of your personal politics is immensely draining and would cause extra stress that could have been avoided.
Avoiding Political Discussions At Work
So what do you do when that one coworker comes up to you and starts in on the latest political news? First off, avoid all heated topics if possible. Try not to engage in the topic, especially if you know that you feel deeply about it. Keep the conversation as lighthearted as much as possible. When possible, steer the conversation in another direction. If necessary, be ready to walk away.
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