Janine Truitt was working in human resources for a federal contractor in 2012 when President Barack Obama won a second term.
The office was fairly split between conservatives and liberals. Some disgruntled conservatives publicly expressed their displeasure, from hanging up insensitive posters in the office to referring to Obama as “a monkey.”
“The air was thick,” says Truitt. “It was a very contentious environment in which many people weren’t wanting to communicate.”
Many employees, bothered by the racially-charged commentary, lodged complaints with HR — each of which was handled on an individual basis. In the end, the atmosphere had gotten so toxic, department heads were tasked with speaking to their employees about toning down the rhetoric.
The partisan divide over political values has grown even wider in Trump’s first term, according to a Pew study, and there’s a real animosity developing: 45 percent of Republicans and 41 percent of Democrats said the opposing party was “a threat to the nation’s well-being.” To make matters worse, research suggests that our political identities are rooted in childhood and stronger than our identities in race, religion and ethnicity.
With the 2020 presidential election on the horizon, it’s time to ask: Can you get fired for getting fired up about politics at work?
Public versus private employees
Your freedom of speech under the First Amendment doesn’t mean you get to say whatever you want without penalty. Your constitutional rights are triggered by government action — not the decisions of your boss.
That is, unless your boss is the government.
When you work for the government, a firing could — in some instances — violate your constitutional rights.
One of the landmark cases in this regard was Pickering v. Board of Education, in which a public schoolteacher wrote a letter to the editor of a local newspaper complaining about the school board’s allocation of funds favoring athletics over academics. The school board fired Pickering, who sued them for violating his free speech rights.
In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in Pickering’s favor on the grounds that public employees should be free to speak on matters of public concern without fear of retaliation. Today, similar cases are held up to the following test:
- Is the issue raised by the employee a matter of public concern, or is it an internal, work-related matter?
- If it’s a matter of public concern, is it expressed in a way that will disrupt the government’s operations?
If an employee was terminated for speaking on a matter of public concern and the operations of the employer weren’t significantly disrupted, he or she may have a legitimate case.
None of the above, however, applies to private-sector employees.
You can get fired for pretty much anything
Most people in the private sector are employed at will, meaning you can be fired without cause unless your employer has stated otherwise.
In other words, pretty much anything you do in public can get you a meeting with HR if it makes your co-workers uncomfortable.
“[The comment] only has to make somebody feel uncomfortable, to be honest,” says Truitt, “and uncomfortable enough to where they’re unable to perform their duties or feel properly assimilated or accepted in the environment.”
Generally, HR departments have a process for investigating such complaints that rely on interviews with the involved parties (including the person the complaint was lodged against).
The hiring process is expensive, and employers don’t take joy in letting people go, so most companies assess the risk of keeping the offensive employee on board. “Is the behavior likely to continue, and if so, could it lead to a lawsuit?” is the type of question the HR department may be mulling over before they make a decision.
Harassment and hostile work environments
One of the goals of HR department is to limit harassment in the workplace. Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on someone’s race, color, national origin, sex and religion. Several categories were added by subsequent legislation.
Harassment constitutes unwelcome conduct based on one of the aforementioned categories. It becomes unlawful when:
- The offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment; or
- The conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile or abusive.
As the United States becomes more politically polarized, political rhetoric has taken on a darker, angrier hue. The “Obama is a monkey” comment cited at the beginning of this article is a fairly clear-cut case of political talk that rises to the level of harassment. If the HR department doesn’t take racially charged comments seriously, they could eventually face a lawsuit.
Meanwhile, your political affiliation does not count as a protected class, according to federal law.
Some states, however, have passed laws related to political discrimination. In New York, employers can’t discriminate against employees for their political activities, and in California, employers can’t discriminate based on political activities or political affiliations.
Bringing a wrongful termination suit against an employer who (you believe) fired you over your political beliefs would be frivolous outside of a few select states.
Be careful what you do outside of work
Thanks to the rise of social media, our opinions rarely stay private. Whether we’re tweeting to a small group of followers or having a heated exchange with a stranger on the street, our words have the potential to reach a worldwide audience in a matter of seconds — and they can get you in big trouble.
Simply looking at recent news provides plenty of examples:
- Employees getting fired for participating in violent protests in Charlottesville, Va.;
- ESPN suspending a SportsCenter anchor because of tweets calling President Trump a “white supremacist”;
- A woman getting fired for giving the middle finger to Trump’s motorcade; and
- A Trump supporter getting fired for harassing a woman for her bumper stickers.
In each instance, the companies either pointed to their social media policy or their diversity and inclusion initiatives to explain their actions. As long as their policies have been enforced fairly, they’re probably in the clear.
The best way to handle political discussions
While politics has become a dangerous topic to broach at work, you may not want to completely drop it from your vocabulary. Here are some ways you can ensure the discussion is respectful and productive.
- Set the right tone. Managers and team leaders play a key role in setting the tone of workplace conduct. This includes talking about politics. If you start a company meeting by mentioning the morning’s news, you are signaling that others can do the same. Make sure you’re thinking carefully about the environment you’re creating.
- Focus on your work. Sometimes the best political discussion in the workplace is to not have one at all. According to an Indeed study, 20 percent of workers feel the workplace is not politically censored enough, while only half of liberals and conservatives feel comfortable discussing their politics at work. When striking up political conversations with colleagues, you may be making them deeply uncomfortable — and that’s not OK.
- Listen more than you talk. When someone tries to draw you into a political debate, don’t take the bait. Listen to what they have to say. If you disagree, ask them questions about their beliefs without contributing your own.
- Know when to stop. Seventy-five percent of hiring managers and HR professionals say they’re more likely to promote an employee who has high emotional intelligence than one who has a high IQ. This means, if you’re looking to climb the corporate ladder, you don’t have to be right all the time — you have to know when the heated conversation is going nowhere. De-escalating a political conversation is a great way to highlight your leadership skills.