It's an election year. People talk politics in the workplace. And why not? We have freedom of speech.
Well, not necessarily.
A private-sector employer "has a lot of latitude as to what's permitted or not with respect to political speech, or pushing any view for that matter," advises Brian Finucane, an attorney at Fisher & Phillips in Kansas City.
An employer can allow or prohibit political speech at work. An employer can allow one point of view to be aired but discipline an employee who voices a contrary opinion. An employer can fire a worker who supports a different candidate or stance.
That's certainly not "best practice" in a workplace, Finucane says, but it's important for private-sector employees to understand the limits of their free-speech rights at work.
In at-will workplaces, employers can discipline or fire employees for things said or done at work — or even outside work. In the real world, fortunately, that's rare.
Calm discussions of hot topics — political, religious, whatever — usually are fine … up to a point. That point occurs when discussion morphs into a hostile work environment.
If comments are offensive or pervasive, and violate workers' legal protections against discrimination on the basis of sex, race, age, religion, ethnicity or pregnancy, there's a problem.
Repeated racist or sexist references to certain candidates may give offended employees legal grounds for discrimination lawsuits. Employers beware, Finucane warns.
"If, for example, an employer tolerates males shooting their mouths off about 'sluts' or other derogatory words about female candidates, that could cross the line and partly be a basis for sexual harassment claims by women employees," he says.
Similarly, racist terms should be quashed. It's a matter of creating workplaces where all feel welcome and comfortable.
Copyright 2012 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.); distributed by MCT Information Services