‘A fine line’ on political speech
Limiting expression can lead to divisions
Americans will go to the polls in three weeks. But their conversations about the candidates and issues dominating the election will not end on Nov. 6.
While the First Amendment guards against government censorship of political viewpoints, courts have given private-sector firms significant latitude. Gaining consensus on managing workplace political expression is an increasingly fraught task for companies in a hyper-partisan era in which NFL players and the president are clashing over voicing on the-job opinions.
“In the workplace, you don’t have the same freedom of speech that you do outside the office,” said David Lewis, founder and CEO of Norwalk-based HR consulting and outsourcing firm Operations Inc. “But it’s a tough message to tell employees you can’t talk about politics, if at the same time the CEO or other Clevel executives are talking about or posting on social media about politics. You have to walk a fine line.”
Slightly more than half of U.S. employees say they are comfortable with the extent of political expression in their organizations, according to a new survey of about 2,000 workers by Stamfordbased job-search site Indeed.
About half of both liberals and conservatives said they felt mostly comfortable sharing their views.
“Most people probably feel that way because they’ve succumbed to the fact that their First Amendment rights are limited in the workplace,” said David Cadden, a professor emeritus in Quinnipiac University’s business school. “They’re probably more concerned with the office politics than their ability to enunciate their viewpoints on national politics.”
There are, however, genderbased differences. Among liberals, the rates of those comfortable with the amount of political discussion in the workplace ran at 38
percent of men and 27 percent of women. Among conservatives, 35 percent of men said they were comfortable, compared with 23 percent of women.
About two-thirds said they did not think that political groups were being silenced in the workplace, while 23 percent held the opposite view.
Of the 23 percent who asserted certain groups were being silenced in their organizations, 60 percent blamed their peers’ actions, while 40 percent described their firms’ leaders as the culprits.
Within the group reporting censorship, two-thirds said conservative groups were being silenced, while the balance said liberal factions were repressed.
At the same time, 20 percent said they wanted political discussions to be banned at work.
Debate about protests
HR experts such as Lewis trace the charged environment for at-work political discussions to the 2016 election which featured two controversial candidates, now-President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Recent episodes such as the partisan rancor surrounding the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh continue to stoke the potential for on-the-job political acrimony.
“In 2016, people were talking about politics at work at a rate and level that we hadn’t seen prior to that election,” Lewis said. “It didn’t stop, it continues to flare up, and I expect it will flare up again after this election.”
Since he was elected, Trump has become embroiled in arguably the most contentious show of political speech in an American workplace: the protests of NFL players during the national anthem.
The resounding majority of NFL players stand during the anthem, but some are still protesting, saying they want to raise awareness about cases of police brutality and other social injustices.
“The kneeling enrages some people because they don’t think the players should be protesting while they’re at work,” Cadden said.
Eric Reid, a safety who started kneeling when he was a 49ers teammate of Colin Kaepernick, took a knee before his first game, on Oct. 7, with the Carolina Panthers. No teammates joined, but several embraced him after the anthem.
Kaepernick has not played in the league since the 2016 season. In October 2017, he filed a grievance against the NFL alleging collusion after he was not signed by another team after opting out of his 49ers contract seven months earlier.
Before he joined the Panthers, Reid had filed earlier this year his own grievance after he was not initially signed by another team during the past off-season.
An inquiry to the state Department of Labor on the state’s involvement in workplace political expression was referred to the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities and Office of State Ethics.
The CHRO enforces civil rights laws in Connecticut. But political affiliation is not a protected class basis under those statutes, so the CHRO would not have jurisdiction over a complaint filed solely on that basis, said a commission spokesman.
Similarly, the OSE does not regulate political expression in private-sector organizations.
With government officials generally not monitoring on-the-job political speech, Lewis recommends that employers be consistent in their rules and lean toward limiting political conversations.
“People’s differing political views can lead to some level of discord at work, and that can get out of hand very quickly, like a wildfire,” Lewis said. “But once you get to the point of banning certain dialogue, the mere fact that you have issued a ban has created a workplace culture crisis. So, you have to walk a fine line.”
Fifty-four percent of the Indeed survey respondents said they did not think their political beliefs affected their career prospects, while 25 percent said their views did have an impact. Twenty-one percent were unsure.
“The belief that people’s political views will affect their career prospects may lead some people to choose companies they align with politically, potentially leading to even more politically polarized workplaces,” Indeed officials wrote in a blog post about the survey findings. “Each company will need to answer for itself whether that is a direction it is willing to head in.”
Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid kneels as head coach Ron Rivera, right, and Cam Newton stand during the national anthem before a game against the New York Giants in Charlotte, N.C., last Sunday.
Palm trees frame a large billboard on top of a Nike store that shows former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick at Union Square in San Francisco.