by Brenda K. Baumgart
Stoel Rives World of Employment
Oregon law firm
From the Presidential debates to lawn signs, and TV ads to the Voters’ Pamphlet in your mailbox, there’s no denying that election season is in full swing. For employers, the home stretch to November 6 means not only around-the-clock coverage, but the potential for spirited debates—and resulting employee discord—in the workplace. Although with limited exception political activity or affiliation is not a protected status, and Oregon employers no longer have to worry about giving employees time off to vote due to mail-in ballots, the impending election still has significant potential to invoke myriad workplace issues ranging from discrimination and harassment to free speech and bullying. Here are some “dos and don’ts” to help guide employers over the next several weeks and keep polarizing political discourse from disrupting your workplace:
* Do set the tone. If you haven’t already, employers should clearly communicate their expectations to employees and foster a culture of mutual respect and understanding. Diversity—even with respect to politics—can be embraced as a positive. Employers lead the way by conveying their acceptance of varying ideologies, and encouraging employees to handle differences of opinion civilly and without letting it affect normal operations. Political conversations between employees often lead to discussion of sensitive (and protected) issues such as race, religion, immigration, and women’s rights. However, election season should not provide a license for employees to harass or bully one another by attacking contrasting political views, bragging about which ballot measures did or did not pass, or gloating over a candidate’s defeat. Employers can minimize risk by reminding employees that their policies prohibiting harassment, discrimination and retaliation apply to all political discussions, and investigating any complaints promptly. Moreover, some employers have in fact included political activity in their EEO or anti-harassment policies, so it may be prudent to dust off and review your handbook, because employees certainly will know what you have promised. Similarly, given that unions are frequently politically active, some union contracts prohibit politics-based discrimination.
* Don’t allow bad behavior in the name of “free speech.” Contrary to popular belief, there is no blanket right of “free speech” in a private workplace. The First Amendment covers only state action, and private sector employers are therefore free to limit political discussions in the workplace. Be careful, however, that any such limitations don’t run afoul of laws such as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) (see next “do,” below) or federal and state anti-discrimination laws.
Read on for more election “dos and don’ts” below!
* Do be mindful of the NLRA. The NLRA offers some protections for employees’ political speech, both on and off the job, and even if you do not have a union-based workforce. As the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) states on its website, employees have the right to work together to “improve their pay and working conditions or fix job-related problems, even if they aren’t in a union.” (See https://www.nlrb.gov/concerted-activity). Employers should be particularly cautious to ensure that any restrictions on employee communications, political or otherwise, don’t impede on employees’ ability to act in concert with respect to work-related matters such that they would run afoul of Section 7 protections.
* Don’t forget about social media. Undoubtedly, social media has played a significant role in 2012—and it’s likely becoming an increasing presence in your employees’ day-to-day lives, too. Employers should remind employees of any policies regulating internet usage in the workplace, along with any policies specifically governing social media. Although such policies should encourage employees to be respectful, they should not be so broad-sweeping as to prohibit political discussions over social media, as this again has the risk of crossing over into Section 7 protections referenced above. The NLRB has stated that employers should not “caution employees against online discussions that could become heated or controversial.”
* Do be cautious of Company political endorsements. It’s common for employers to provide general election information to employees, such as informing them when ballots are mailed or simply encouraging them to vote. In recent years, however, many employers have taken it further and perhaps garnered unintended press for making political statements—most often during election season. Although there is no per se law prohibiting a private company from voicing its own political views to employees, employers who do so should also make clear that employees retain the sole right to vote as they choose. Employers should also be mindful of the resulting pitfalls. For example, would a gay or lesbian employee be more likely to bring a sexual orientation discrimination claim against an employer that had voiced its opposition to same-sex marriage? There’s no way to know, but most employers probably wouldn’t want to be the test case.
* Don’t enforce policies on a selective basis. Many employers maintain no-solicitation or no-distribution policies, which generally prohibit employees from requesting support for or distributing materials about non-work events or causes. To be effective, however, these policies must be both strictly and evenly enforced. Don’t let a Democrat post political flyers, but not a Republican. And don’t let the CEO hand out buttons supporting the candidate of his or her choice, but prohibit employees from doing the same thing.
* Do know if local or state law protects provides greater protections. As mentioned above, political activity is not a protected status for most employees working for private employers under federal law, and only a handful of states have promulgated laws making it unlawful for employers to discriminate or retaliate based on an employee’s political activity or affiliation. Oregon in Washington have not, but California is one of the few states that has. Some protections are derived on a more local level, such as the City of Seattle, which prohibits discrimination based on political ideology, affiliation or similar terms. Public employers need to be ever mindful of the circumstances when political speech crosses the threshold into free speech, thus precluding adverse action on that basis.
* Don’t hesitate to reach out if things get sticky. Election-related employment issues can be complex and difficult to navigate. If you run into problems in the pre- or post-election flurry, contact your employment attorney. Although it may seem that all anyone cares about these days is the election, you’ve still got a business to run—and help is available.