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(c) by Mary Griggs

Central Florida billionaire, David Siegel, the founder and CEO of Westgate Resorts, sent a memo to over 7,000 of his employees which stated if Obama is re-elected, it would mean “fewer jobs, less benefits and certainly less opportunity for everyone.”

Arthur Allen, head of ASG Software Solutions, emailed his employees and urged them to vote for a “new president and administration” if they hope to “remain independent.”

Koch Industries, the company run by the billionaire Koch brothers, sent a voter information packet to 45,000 employees of its Georgia Pacific subsidiary earlier this month. In it was a letter from Koch Industries president Dave Robertson implicitly warning that “many of our more than 50,000 U.S. employees and contractors may suffer the consequences” of voting for President Obama and other Democrats in the 2012 elections.

Are these examples of voter intimidation?

It may be pretty shitty, but it isn’t intimidation. In most cases, unless the employer actually threatens to fire people for how they vote, demands financial contributions for their continued employment or restricts employees from voting, they haven’t broken the law.

There are many employment laws that prohibit discrimination or unlawful termination on the basis of race, sex, age and certain other protected characteristics, but most federal statutes do not protect political expressions or activities. The National Labor Relations Act does protect employees’ rights to engage in protected concerted activity, though. In a Memorandum issued in 2008, the NLRB General Counsel stated that political activity related to employment concerns that occurs during non-work time and in non-work areas generally is protected if it does not disrupt the employer’s work operations or interfere with the employer’s ability to maintain discipline in its workplace. The General Counsel also stated, however, that political advocacy that occurs during work time is subject to restrictions imposed by lawful, neutrally-applied work rules.

State laws that do offer some protections to employees in their exercise of their political rights. For example, while Louisiana does not guarantee time off to vote there are two statutes protecting political rights –

  1. When there are at least 20 employees, employers can’t discriminate, threaten, or discipline to influence how, or whether, an employee participate in politics (La. Rev. Stat. §23:961);
  2. Workers (no matter the size of the employer) can’t be fired because of their political opinion and that their boss can’t try to control how, or if, they vote (La. Rev. Stat. §23:962).

While it may be legal for the above CEO’s to try and influence the election, is it a good idea?

My answer, as a Human Resources professional with almost 20 years management experience, is no.

Diversity of opinion and ideas is a good thing at work and in politics. In fact, treating every employee with dignity and respect (no matter their political opinion) is crucial to avoiding unwanted conflict and preventing acrimony. Imposing particular viewpoints in a diverse workplace can be detrimental to morale.

Managers and supervisors need to be aware that promoting a particular political position at work can open them to liability for lawsuits arising from creating hostile working conditions. Most companies and organizations have policies prohibiting harassment, discrimination and retaliation. Managers who bully employees for their political views can be subject to criminal penalties in addition to subjecting the business to civil liability.

Further, failing to be neutral on political issues can have major ramifications regarding union organizing. For example, permitting the use of e-mail or work time for political campaigning while prohibiting such use for union-related purposes could violate the NLRA.

On the other side of the equation, employees also need to be very careful about talking politics at work. In the first place, there is no absolute constitutional guarantee of free speech in a private workplace. That right is only guaranteed and applicable in public places and not privately owned businesses.

All employers have a legitimate interest in preventing any non-work activity from interfering with the efficient operation of their businesses. If political discussion impairs productivity, management can (and should) intervene.

Employers are entitled to enforce rules of conduct and to discipline employees whose actions disrupt the workplace, even if those actions are politically related. Employers can implement dress codes that prohibit employees from displaying political items at work, such as hats, pins, t-shirts, etc as well as restrict company resources, including computers, internet and e-mail to business purposes only.

Any adverse action must focus on the employee’s disruptive behavior and not on the opinions expressed by the employee and that any discipline is applied uniformly.

Frankly, it is best when we ALL leave our political activities for after work hours. You want to get the best out of your employees and coworkers? Create an environment that is comfortable and productive and don’t assume that everyone believes what you believe.

Here are some articles that might be of interest: