Whom are you voting for?
As the current presidential campaign heats up, workers should avoid asking or answering the question, workplace etiquette and legal experts say. Such political chatter, they say, could adversely affect professional relationships — and even get you fired.
Workplace author and etiquette coach Barbara Pachter warns that queries such as “How can you possibly vote for [blank]?” or “Don't you think his stance on [blank] is outrageous?” can come across as put-downs or fightin' words.
“Discussions can quickly become ugly,” Pachter said.
A heated argument that nearly came to fisticuffs resulted in the recent firing of two workers at a large energy company represented by the New York law firm Proskauer. After their fight, over Missouri Rep. Todd Akin's comments that “legitimate” rape victims are unlikely to get pregnant, their alarmed employer asked Proskauer attorneys whether he could fire the employees.
His firm's counsel not only told the employer he had the right to fire the disruptive employees, but also recommended it, said Nigel Telman, a Chicago-based partner. A female co-worker who overheard their loud argument could sue for sex discrimination, if she felt a supervisor who agreed with Akin was hostile to women, he said.
Though government employers have broad protections on their political speech under the First Amendment, private employers have broad latitude over what is verbally expressed, put in emails or on social media, especially during work hours, Telman said.
“Employers can fire for any reason (including political beliefs) and no reason at all, as long as it's not an illegal reason,” he said.
Just last month Vante Inc. medical supply manufacturer in Tucson, Ariz., reportedly fired its chief financial officer after he posted a YouTube video of himself berating a Chick-fil-A employee for the company's opposition to gay marriage. And last year, a Chicago Outback Steakhouse in Pennsylvania fired a waitress after she wore a bright yellow Tea Party bracelet, about which several customers complained.
Union workers and employees in California and other states have greater protections regarding political speech, Telman said. Under the National Labor Relations Act, an employer can't prevent employees from having discussions related to union activity, so if union employees vehemently discuss health care reform, for example, their speech likely would be protected, he said.
California, Colorado, New York and North Dakota have statutes that protect employees' off-duty political activity, while employers in Louisiana, California, Connecticut and South Carolina can't restrict workers from political activities, even when they are at work.
Telman recommends companies have written policies, discouraging political talk during paid time.
“Employers would be smart to get in front of it (the escalating political season) and manage it properly,” he said. “You can't ignore it.”
But labor attorneys in Boston and Oklahoma City disagree with the need for written policies.
“Policies don't solve problems; you have to have enforcement, and that would be nearly impossible to apply consistently,” said Bradford J. Smith, a partner with Goodwin Procter in Boston. “The reality is employees spend more time with their co-workers than any people in their lives, and they're going to talk about things that are important to them, including politics.”