In the days leading up to the presidential election, Jonah sent several emails to co-workers to persuade them to vote for the candidate he supported. Jonahs co-worker Aaron did not share Jonahs political views and complained to Sarah, their supervisor. Sarah could not find a policy that covered workplace political activity in the companys personnel manual.
What should Sarah do?
Generally, private employers may restrict political activity in the workplace, especially if it has an impact on the companys operation. A general policy that prohibits the circulation of email or literature in the workplace that is not job-related would be permissible. This may extend to workplace discussions.
Employers cannot restrict all political activity in the workplace. For example, employers cannot directly interfere with or coerce employees regarding their right to vote for the candidates of their choice. Employers should avoid policies that prohibit speech that spills over into other areas, such as discussions regarding race, sex, religion and national origin.
Enforcement of political-speech policies should be applied uniformly to all employees, regardless of political affiliation.
While restricting speech at work might be legal, enforcing a restrictive speech policy may not be a good idea. Some amount of political discussion and activity can be beneficial. Friendly, nonheated discussions of political issues can lead to increased camaraderie and positive working relationships, which could improve morale and productivity.
What about political speech coming from the top of the company? Can employers engage in political speech at work?
According to recent news reports, a number of CEOs, either directly or indirectly, called on workers to vote for Republican candidate Mitt Romney. For instance, the CEO of Petroleum Helicopters, Al Gonsoulin, wrote a letter to the companys 2,000 employees that was critical of the Obama administrations oil-and-gas policies. In another case, Georgia Pacific gave employees voter-information packets informing them that their jobs could depend upon the outcome of the presidential election, and that the companys owners supported the Republican candidate. The leaders of Cintas, Westgate Resorts, Rite- Hite, and ASG Software Solutions also communicated company political preferences with employees.
Can they do that?
The short answer is yes. Until 2010, federal law prohibited companies from using corporate funds to endorse or campaign for political candidates. This prohibition extended to attempts to influence employees political choices.
In 2010, the Citizens United decision lifted those restrictions on corporate campaign spending. The 2012 election was the first test of the post-Citizens United political climate. Apparently many corporate leaders took advantage of the freedom to use corporate funds for political purposes.
According to many experts, employers may encourage employees to vote a particular way, but they may not fire or threaten to fire employees who refuse. Nor may employers attempt to coerce or intimidate employees to vote a particular way.
Employers might be wise to consider the impact on overall morale. As The New York Times reported, one George-Pacific employee said after receiving an information packet, It leaves a bad taste.
Susan Park, assistant professor in management at Boise States College of Business and Economics. firstname.lastname@example.org