You’re probably familiar with the advice to not talk about politics at work. But the etiquette around participating in political activities outside of work can be a little more hazy. Whether it’s attending a protest or publicly tweeting at a politician, your political activities can have a major impact on your job.
Of course, the right to participate in political activities is a key part of living in a democracy, and ideally, attending a rally shouldn’t really impact your professional prospects. Corporations, however, are free to come up with their own policies, including limiting some political participation.
To find out what employees should know about how taking part in political activities can affect their job, Fast Company contacted two workplace experts. Here’s what they told us.
Get A Feeling For Where Your Company Stands From The Start
Lynn Taylor, workplace expert and author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job, says that ideally, the best time to figure out whether or not your political activities could cost you your job is right before you start. “So many people right now are looking for positions, and I suspect that not many of them are even thinking about this. It’s not even on their radar because they’re just focused on what the best job is, what the best salary is, where can I get the best opportunity for growth—but they can be out of a job if they’re politically active.”
She recommends that job candidates should check out sites like Glassdoor, talk to people they might know at the company, or speak directly to HR or recruiters to find out as much as they can about the workplace culture and what’s deemed acceptable or not.
For those currently employed, Taylor suggests checking out the company handbook to find out what policies they have—if any—on employees and political participation. “Look around you,” Taylor says. “What’s the treatment of others who are politically active?
“If you just keep your ears to the ground, it’s amazing how much information you can find out that would otherwise go under the radar. And while you’re at the job, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t go on social media and still do your due diligence and see what’s being said about the company.”
Freedom Of Speech Doesn’t Always Apply In The Workplace
Political activism is a privilege, but the workplace doesn’t always see it that way. As a private citizen, what you say with regards to your political views—as well as how you express them—is constitutionally protected under the First Amendment. But this protection doesn’t always necessarily extend to guarantee of employment in the workplace—private organizations can make their own rules, and in some cases that includes regulating what you can and can’t say in the office.
Edward Yost, an HR expert from the Society for Human Resource Management, tells Fast Company that recently, the National Labor Relations Board—the government agency that enforces the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)—has taken the stance that an employer cannot take disciplinary action based on an employee’s social media posting, unless it threatens the organization in some way. This rule, however, doesn’t give employees a blanket protection to make controversial political statements on social media.
Employment At Will Makes It Possible For You To Get Fired For Any Reason
Yost and Taylor both point out that most U.S. workers operate under the employment-at-will doctrine. “An employer can terminate an employee without justification,” Yost says. So in fact, if an employer wants to fire you because of your political activities, they’re just not allowed to say that’s the reason for terminating your employment.
Taylor says, “Whether you decide to sue your employer later because you weren’t fired for any legitimate reason is a separate matter. Because you could almost be fired for any reason, you have to be a little cautious and realize that free speech is not—unfortunately—the case once you’re employed.”
It’s important to note that the NLRA applies to private-sector employees only; federal and government employees are excluded. However, Taylor notes that as a government employee, you’re likely to have more protections, provided that your actions aren’t disruptive to the workplace.
Be Aware Of State Regulations
Being aware of state regulations (and possibly additional protections) is also an important factor to consider when you’re thinking about whether attending a protest might impact your job. California, for example, grants employees certain protections when it comes to participating in political activities. States like Colorado and New Mexico also provide some protection, according to an article in Law360.
Taylor explains, “There are a lot of states that are more politically progressive than others. It’s a moving target in some cases. It really depends on what state you’re in and what you’re doing in those states.”
Have Your Own Litmus Test
Ultimately, both Taylor and Yost urge employees to devise their own litmus test before they take part in any political activities that can potentially jeopardize their jobs. Both note that the heightened political climate is likely to make this an ongoing issue for both employees and employers.
Taylor says, “If you want to be completely conservative, you keep a low profile. That said, a lot of people want to express their political views.”
She continues, “You have to keep not only your current job but also your well-being intact at work, and not introduce another level of stress into your job because you feel conflicted about the need to express your views. That’s something that nobody really needs on top of producing good work.”
Yost says that ultimately, employees need to be aware of what they consider to be important. For him, if his values or beliefs have the potential to “negatively impact” his career in an organization, then that’s a strong sign that his current workplace is probably not the right one for him.