The next presidential election goes down in just five months, and if you feel bombarded by political ads and talk-show rants now, just you wait. The intensity of the debate is only going to escalate over the course of the summer, and then explode after Labor Day, the traditional start of the “real” campaign. Inevitably, politics will become a water-cooler topic. You may find yourself volunteering or donating or just becoming more passionate about some campaign issue or another. But guess what? In most states, your boss can fire you for those opinions. (Don’t worry, it’s rare!) I talked with Dan Prywes, a partner at the Washington law firm Bryan Cave LLP who specialized in employment law, about what politically passionate employees should keep in mind this election season.
1. Yes, you can be fired for your opinions. Political affiliation is not a protected class in federal employment law, which means you can’t go to court if you’re fired over it. (By contrast, race, religion, and sex are all protected.) In Alabama in 2004, a Bush-supporting boss fired a woman who refused to remove a Kerry bumper sticker from her Chevy Lumina. Those extreme cases are rare, Prywes says, but they’re not unprecedented. For what it’s worth, some states have stricter protections than the federal government.
2. Know your rights — and where they end. “Employers can prohibit political activity occurring on the clock or using the employer’s resources or property, or from wearing campaign buttons when interacting with the public,” Prywes says. Beyond that, it gets thornier, and rules vary by state.
3. Follow your company’s social media policy. Prywes points out that many companies have clear rules when it comes to social media use, such as forbidding employees from listing their employer on their Twitter account. Before you start tweeting about how President Mitt Romney would destroy the very fiber of this country, or pasting Obama birth-certificate conspiracy theories to Facebook, make sure you’re not violating your workplace’s rules. (Actually, if you’re doing either of those things, you also might want to just take a step back and reassess some bigger issues, too.)
4. Don’t give your boss a reason to resent you. It’s pretty simple, really. “The biggest risk [for employers] is not a legal risk but a practical risk,” Prywes says. “You’re paying people to politic on the clock rather than work, so you’re dealing with lost productivity.” Even if politics is your passion, don’t let your employer think it’s become your job.