Do you talk politics at work? We hear about free speech all the time, but what happens when your boss overhears you talking about a subject that flares tempers on both sides?
As we approach the midterm elections in November, there are always hot button issues (and candidates) that get the blood boiling. In Texas, there is a gubernatorial race that will surely bring out the liberal feminist in me. State Attorney General, Greg Abbott (R) and Wendy Davis (D) former State Senator, will face off here in the Texas. You may recall that Wendy Davis is the women who held a filibuster to stop the passage of a bill that severely limited women’s access to healthcare centers that also performed abortions. She became the woman who stood up to the overwhelmingly male conservatives, sparking interest and support from women all over the state came to stand with her. They (Wendy Davis and her supporters) brought the session to a close, without passing the bill. You can bet there were some interesting conversations in the break rooms across the state the next day and you can imagine the heated conversations that will arise once this gubernatorial race get’s up and going in a week or two.
First Amendment – Free Speech
I bring this up because I am passionate about women’s rights and empowering women to use their authentic voice. Can we speak up at work? I mean, we have the First Amendment – free speech, so we should be able to speak our mind, right?
Actually, no, we don’t. I was kind of surprised to see that many companies have specific policies against talking openly about politics (and any other topic that could lead to discourse in the workplace). Susan Adams, a staff writer at Forbes magazine, wrote a great article, Talking Politics At Work Can Get You Fired. The article was written in the fall of 2012, and told the story of two employees who disagreed about the words Missouri Rep. Todd Akin had spoken about “legitimate rape”. You can see how this could end badly.
The week before last, shortly after Missouri Rep. Todd Akin made his combustible comments about how women subject to “legitimate rape” were unlikely to get pregnant, a couple of office workers at a large energy company got into a heated discussion about whether Rep. Akin’s views had any merit. The two disagreed so vehemently, they nearly came to blows. Alarmed about the disruption, the employer called Steven Hurd, a partner at the New York law firm Proskauer in its labor and employment law department. Could the company fire the employees, or was their political discussion protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of expression?
Hurd’s response: the employer had the right to fire the disruptive employees. In fact, Hurd urged the firm to let the workers go, because their loud argument could cause another kind of legal problem: A female employee sensitive about sex discrimination could feel that a supervisor who agreed with Rep. Akin was hostile to women, which could open up the employer to a hostile work environment sex discrimination suit. In addition, the employer had a written policy that explicitly discouraged discussions of flammable political topics like abortion. The employer promptly terminated both employees.
A written policy? Really?
Yes, really. It makes sense that you need to keep the peace in the office. Even I understood that I couldn’t speak freely in a business environment as I would have liked. I can edit. Most of us know who we can say what to. Years ago, I worked for a very conservative organization with a lot of ex-military employees. It was not uncommon for everyone to assume my political views were the same as theirs and keeping my mouth shut was almost a Zen practice. In general, unless you are working FOR the political campaign or candidate, you should probably refrain from participating in politically charged discussions, especially if you are passionate about the subject. Jennifer Smith, another Forbes staff writer says in her article, Should You Discuss Politics And The Election At Work? – Forbes “If you feel strongly about something, you can state your opinion if asked, but don’t belabor it,” she says. “The bottom line is that you are at your office to work, and unless you are working for a politician or politics has a direct influence on your job, it’s best to stick to other topics.”
And don’t think your company can only keep you silent at work. Some organizations forbid their employees from attending political rallies or signing political petitions, even after work hours. While it’s rare that companies go this far, but if your participation in a political rally, say an anti-gay rights group, brings negative attention to the company, you could lose your job. Remember that social media is also under scrutiny, so don’t post any political comment you wouldn’t want your mother, or your boss to read.
What can you do to speak that authentic voice you’ve been working so hard to cultivate? Steven Hurd has these words of wisdom, “Become informed about your company’s policy, if any, on political activity. In most cases, it’s best to leave your campaign buttons at home and not to solicit donations during work hours. If you want to go to rallies or fundraisers during your off hours, ask your supervisor whether they think there could be a problem. And if you feel compelled to spark a political discussion in the office, think twice before you bring up a flammable topic like Todd Akin.”