Perhaps now more than ever, Americans are deeply divided when it comes to politics. Discussing politics can lead to heated arguments and even cause rifts in relationship. So what if these issues spill over into the workplace? Can your boss fire you for your political beliefs or off-duty political activities? In many cases, the answer is yes. However, it depends on the context and what state you live in.
Federal law does little to protect employees from being fired or disciplined for their political beliefs or activities. Some people mistakenly believe that their First Amendment free speech rights extend to the workplace. However, for most employees, this is not the case. The First Amendment prohibits the government from infringing on free speech; it does not apply to private employers. So, unless you work for the government, the First Amendment does not limit your employer in any way. (And, even for government workers, First Amendment rights are not absolute in the workplace.)
However, there are some limited situations in which an employee is protected. For example, the following laws might apply:
- Federal antidiscrimination laws. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on certain characteristics, such as religion, race, and gender. If your political beliefs or activities are connected with one of these characteristics, you might be protected. For example, if your boss fires you after finding out that you attended a Black Lives Matter rally advocating for police reform, he or she might be targeting you because of your race or affiliation with a particular race—which is illegal under federal law.
- Union laws. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) prohibits employers from taking negative action against employees for union activities. The law also protects nonunion employees who are trying to unionize or who get together to try to improve their working conditions or wages. Because politics often intersect with employment-related issues, such as wages and health care, your activities might be protected under these laws. For example, if you talk to your coworkers about supporting Bernie Sanders and his platform for a higher minimum wage, you might be protected. (See our labor unions page for more information.)
Unless your situation falls within the narrow categories mentioned above, you will need to look to your state’s laws for protection. The majority of states do not prohibit employers from firing employees for their political beliefs or activities. However, some states have passed laws that address these issues, including:
- Antidiscrimination laws. A few states—such as California and Washington, D.C.—make it illegal for employers to discriminate against employees based on political affiliation or beliefs. It would be illegal, for example, for your employer to fire you because you are a Democrat or Republican or because you believe in universal healthcare.
- Off-Duty conduct laws. A handful of states—including Colorado and New York—protect an employee’s right to engage in lawful conduct while off-duty and away from company premises, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the employer’s business. Attending a political fundraiser or a peaceful protest, for example, would be protected in these states.
- Coercion laws. Several states—including Ohio and Florida—have laws that prohibit employers from trying to coerce employees into voting for or against a particular candidate in an election. If your boss threatened to fire you unless you voted for a certain candidate, that would be illegal.
If you were fired or subjected to another negative employment action, and you believe it was due to your political beliefs or activities, you should consult with a local lawyer. A lawyer can identify whether you are protected by federal, state, or even local laws.