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Are You Still Minding the Gap? A Check-Up for Navigating the Line Between Political and Hate Speech and Workplace Acceptability

By Jay M. Dade

In December 2015, we broadly reviewed concerns and compliance issues for employers when managing employees engaged in workplace political speech or those accused of engaging in “hate” speech in the workplace. A brief scan of headlines so far into 2017 reveals more than 900 instances of alleged violence, hate speech, and harassment in and out of workplaces reported since late January. Human Resource professionals and in-house counsel may wonder, again—what are the company’s obligations and duties to our employees?

A quick review: “Political activity” and “political affiliation” are only protected statuses for certain employees and in certain locales. Courts have held the First Amendment protects public employees from their employers using political affiliation as a basis for employment decisions. The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 expressly prohibits political affiliation discrimination toward federal employees. Several states have passed their own statutes concerning private-sector employees:

  • Michigan prohibits direct or indirect threats against employees for the purpose of influencing their vote;
  • Oregon prohibits threatening loss of employment in order to influence the way an employee votes on any candidate or issue;
  • Florida considers it a felony criminal offense to discharge or threaten to discharge an employee for voting, or not voting, in any election (municipal, county or state) for any candidate or measure submitted for a public vote;
  • Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia prohibit employers from posting or distributing notices threatening to close their businesses or lay off employees if a particular candidate is elected; and
  • California, Colorado, New York, North Dakota, and Louisiana have passed laws deeming it illegal for an employer to retaliate against an employee for off-duty participation in politics or political campaigns.

Several cities, such as Lansing, Michigan; Madison, Wisconsin and Seattle, Washington, protect political affiliation similar to protections afforded race, sex, age and disability, even for private sector employees.

Beyond these mandated protections, private sector employees should be mindful of workplace speech and conduct. For example, managers and supervisors who express any type of political opinion to subordinate employees may expose themselves to subsequent claims they acted out of bias against those employees on the basis of other protected statuses. How could an employee draw such a connection in his or her allegation? As we saw in the most recent election cycle, some political candidates across all levels (local, state and federal) voiced strong opinions about race relations, foreign relations policy, religious freedom, Second Amendment rights, immigration, LGBT rights and other issues directly related to characteristics protected by federal, state or local workplace anti-discrimination laws. Dropping into a workplace political debate with a subordinate employee about a candidate, elected official, political party, cause or other political issue risks allowing that employee to associate expressed opinions with some type of prohibited discriminatory bias.

Best Practices Check-up

  1. Understand there could be laws relating to workplace political speech or activities in your location;
  2. Educate managers and supervisors regarding what laws impact the workplace as well as the employer’s workplace culture; training can form a vital line of defense by limiting potential exposure before it has a chance to evolve;
  3. Remind managers and supervisors how personal opinions can be viewed by subordinate employees as a form of prohibited workplace bias; and
  4. Encourage managers and supervisors to resist being drawn into workplace political discussions, particularly with subordinate employees.

Should an employee file an internal complaint alleging a workplace hate-based incident, conduct a measured, consistent investigation to determine what (happened), who (was targeted) and if hate speech or other actions (based on a protected class or against company culture) is likely to have occurred. Resist assumptions. 

If the investigation yields a conclusion that inappropriate behavior occurred, initiate appropriate actions to (1) hold employees appropriately accountable (for example, through formal warning up to discharge) and (2) decrease the likelihood of repeated incidents. Resist any media, or social media, attention that can serve to derail thoughtful consideration of the facts and promote an atmosphere leading to impulsive decisions.