What your rights are at work when it comes to getting involved in social or political activism

A demonstrator holds up a sign during a rally north of Lafayette Square near the White House to protest police brutality and racism on June 6, 2020 in Washington, DC.Jose Luis Magana/AFP via Getty Images
  • If you're unsure whether your company could punish you for participating in social or political activism, experts said there are a few instances where you're protected.
  • Most employees are at-will, meaning they can be fired at any time for any reason — unless discrimination is at play.
  • You still have to follow company policies around harassment and social media even when you're off duty.
  • Try to leave your company out of the conversation if it's not relevant.

From Black Lives Matter protests to the politicization of the coronavirus pandemic and upcoming presidential election, there's so much going on these days. And it's natural to want to share your viewpoints and get involved with causes that are important to you.

But can political or social activism get you in trouble at work? The answer isn't so cut and dry, experts told Business Insider.

"There's a lot of factors that go into all of this, and it really is a case-by-case basis," said Mary Beth Hartleb, CEO of Prism HR-Global Management Group, a human resources consulting company based in Henderson, Nevada.Advertisement

It's all about balancing free speech and company policy. In most cases, Hartleb said employers can't get involved as long as an employee is fulfilling their job obligations, following the law, and engaging in activities, like attending a protest or campaigning for a political candidate, on their own time.

There are some exceptions, though. Here's what you should know about how engaging in political activism could affect your job.

The rules differ for public and private employees

Where you work, specifically if your employer is public or private, could determine how your political activities or speech could be regulated or disciplined, said Aaron Holt, a Houston-based labor and employment attorney with Cozen O'Connor.
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Most private employers are at-will, meaning employees can be terminated for any reason and without warning, Holt said, and that could technically include getting involved in political speech or activities.

Anti-discrimination laws come into play, however, Hartleb explained. Employees can file a discrimination claim with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) if they feel they were discriminated because of their race, religion, sex, age, disability, and/or national origin. The US Supreme Court recently ruled that the law also applies to LGBTQ individuals. Free speech rights are more limited for government, or public, employees than private employees, Holt said. Public employee speech may be protected if they're speaking as private citizens and on a "matter of public concern," which refers to social, political, or community issues.Advertisement

"There's a balance between the government employer's right to have a disruption-free and productive workplace and the employee's right to speak on matters that concern the public," Holt added.

Location is another factor. Several states, including California, New York, and Nevada, bar employers from retaliating against employees for their political beliefs or activities, Holt said.

You still have to follow company policy

Companies usually have dress code and attendance policies, and may also have policies for talking about politics at work, posting on social media, or engaging in activism. Employees are expected to follow these policies or risk disciplinary action or termination.Advertisement

"There's a middle ground," Holt said. "Employees can still lawfully exercise their right to protest or engage in political speech and have it not interfere with their employment, as long as the employee is still complying with the employer's policies and terms and conditions of their employment."

Just be mindful that off-duty conduct could make it back to your boss, he added, especially in an age where situations are easily video taped and posted on social media.

If you're caught attending a protest or political rally off duty but adhering to company policy, there shouldn't be a problem, Holt said. Though, employers may have valid reason to discipline or terminate an employee filmed committing vandalism or going on a racist rant.Advertisement

Employers just can't treat workers differently or apply policies differently to different workers — otherwise it's discrimination, he said.

Take a situation where an employer allows some workers to wear masks with sports team logos or take time off to protest pandemic lockdowns, but says another employee can't wear a Black Lives Matter mask or take off to attend a police brutality protest. Since the policies are being applied differently, the latter worker could have a discrimination claim.

Try to leave your employer out of the conversation

Most of the time, discussing politics or social issues in a civil way on your own time won't get you into trouble at work, as long as you make it clear that your views are personal and you don't bring your company into the discussion. But, there's an exception to that, too.Advertisement

"Let's say an employee goes on a political rant of some sort and then includes somewhere in that rant that they believe their employer doesn't pay a fair wage, for example, and a number of other employees chime in and agree," Holt said.

This might fall under the National Labor Relations Act, which protects an employee's right to engage in a "protected concerted activity," such as trying to improve working conditions or pay or highlight discrimination, he explained. "There's a delicate balance there between what is permissible and making sure that an employee does not cross the line," Hartleb said. "If they're talking about wages or things of that sort, and they're not defaming the company, not harassing or threatening anyone, that's considered protected. And, there's very little that the employer can do about it."Advertisement

If your employer attempts to discipline you in these instances, you could file a claim with the EEOC or National Labor Relations Board.

Companies are worrying about their image more than ever

Now, more than ever, companies such as Ben & Jerry's and Starbucks are becoming more vocal and taking public stances on social and political issues. It's a winning strategy, from a marketing perspective, as research shows consumers want to support companies with values similar to their own.

Many companies are also expecting their workers to behave in ways that support their stances. Advertisement

"Private employers still have the ability and pretty wide latitude to regulate an employee's off-duty conduct to the extent it damages the company's reputation or any of its internal policies or values," Holt said.

Say a worker is off duty but found to be saying things that violate a company's anti-discrimination or harassment policies — the employer can and should step in, he explained. Not only does the employee's behavior make a company look bad, it could also put an organization at risk legally if they knowingly employ someone engaging in discriminatory behaviors.

With so many Americans facing economic hardships and the ongoing political volatility, Hartleb urged employees to talk openly with their employers about their desire to get involved.Advertisement

"I think employers and employees are more on the same page sometimes than they realize," she said. "Now is the time to really open that dialogue."
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