Politics in the Workplace - 2012

With the election just around the corner, it is a good time to remind employers what can and cannot be discussed in the workplace. Private employers have the right to prohibit political speech entirely in their workplaces. The First Amendment protections of free speech apply only to “state action,” not to nongovernmental employers.

What that means from a practical standpoint is that private employers can regulate political speech in the same manner the company controls speech on other topics, such as religion, harassment, race, violence, etc. The question remains, “Should all political speech be banned?” In my opinion, no. Employers need to balance employees’ interest in speaking freely with maintaining order and productivity.

I believe placing a complete gag order on political discussion tends to stifle morale and is difficult to enforce. Instead, I would suggest the implementation of a policy that minimizes distractions but allows for a certain amount of free speech. The policy needs to be broad, applied and enforced evenly across the board, and regulates speech that could have a disruptive effect on the business.

Most private employers have policies restricting the use of employer-owned electronic devices – computers, cell phones. These policies typically indicate these company-owned devices are to be used for business related activities only and may be monitored to ensure compliance with the policy. It is a good idea to include political campaigning as a prohibited activity on electronic devices.

Campaign buttons, stickers, decals hats, etc. can also be banned, as long as the employer restricts all non-business-related items across the board. I would not, however, restrict what the employee does on his or her own time outside the workplace.

Time off to vote?

There is no law in Virginia that requires employers to provide time off for employees to vote. Employers are required, however, to allow an employee to take unpaid leave to serve as an “officer of election.” Such an individual may not be discharged or have any adverse personnel action taken as a result of the absence as long as reasonable notice has been given the employer.

The above information is provided for informational purposes and is not to be considered legal advice. Questions, call Larry Elinskas at 804-966-8100.