Do You Wear a Flag Pin?: Keep Political Speech Out of the Office


At the democratic debate held last night at Philadelphia’s own Constitution Center, Senator Barack Obama was asked why he did not wear an American flag pin in his lapel. While that may be an appropriate question for a presidential candidate, what happens if the issue sparks a political debate around the water cooler?

Can work and politics mix?

Probably not. That’s not to say that talking politics at work is unlawful–it’s just not a good idea. Politics bring strong emotions that may have no place in the office. Political debates can be loud, distracting, and offensive to colleagues. Let’s face it, if you can’t talk about who you’re going to vote for at a dinner party with friends without stirring the pot, you should definitely think twice about doing it at work.

In fact, an employee’s political actions at work can have harsh consequences. Employees should keep in mind that they could be disciplined – even terminated – for promoting their political views in the workplace.

The bottom line is that private employers have a lot of latitude when it comes to what an employee can and cannot say at work; private-sector employees essentially have no constitutional free-speech rights in the workplace.

This is not to say that employers have free reign to control their employee’s viewpoints, or to force their own viewpoints upon employees. For example, a Tennessee state statute makes it unlawful for an employer to require an employee to vote a certain way to keep their employment or to threaten an employee with disciplinary action if he does not vote for a certain candidate or party. Notwithstanding Tennessee’s unique law, an employer who discriminates against an employee for his political views can be subject to legal liability.

So what’s the bottom line? Employees and employers need to be sensitive this election season. Calling employees together to watch the speech of one candidate shouldn’t happen. Taking adverse actions against an employee because he expresses his view in favor of a candidate is certainly ill-advised. And management should not send out a memo or an e-mail in support of a political candidate. In short, pause before you ask your colleague where his flag pin is.

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