From marches to fundraising to calling campaigns, many people have felt called get involved in some form of activism this year. But for many people their office policies or career choices may prohibit it. Media companies, government agencies, companies that do business with the government, and others may have policies or rules—written or unwritten—about employees engaging in certain types of activism or political activities. And while they may not be able to fire you for your views, such actions could make your work environment uncomfortable.
“If you’re a social justice advocate working in a corporation that is regulated and you can’t really get involved on the activist side, no matter who is in power, there are (still) a lot of opportunities to help,” says Tom Watson, president of CauseWired, a consulting firm that works with nonprofits and corporations to inspire people to get involved, and author of CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World. Satisfying the drive to get involved while determining how far you want to requires understanding your rights, your employer’s expectations, and the type of involvement that matters to you, he says.
Finding Your Comfort Zone
Kathleen Beebout, a health professions investigator with the Iowa Board of Nursing, is a longtime volunteer and works on a variety of causes, including teaching U.S. citizenship classes to refugees, serving on the board of the Des Moines Gay Men’s Chorus Board, and, at one time, operating Pies with a Purpose, which encouraged people to donate money or time to various charities by giving them pies for doing so. She even volunteered for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016.
While her employer doesn’t limit her involvement, she draws her own line, and avoids getting involved in issues that might be perceived to present a conflict of interest in her work. “So, there might be issues that might relate to healthcare or nursing that I wouldn’t like to be publicly commenting on,” she says.
But some employees face more restrictions on where they can get involved. Margaret Herring, a former investigator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), had always been interested in politics. Yet, her involvement was “circumscribed by the Hatch Act, and there are some limitations. You can donate to political organizations and candidates, but you can’t use your position or identify yourself as an employee of the EPA or Department of Labor or whatever,” she says. Herring ultimately joined the League of Women Voters in Chicago, which helped her learn more about the city’s laws and follow legislative issues that were important to her.
Deciding What to Do
Of course, being an employee doesn’t rob you of your First Amendment rights, says Ellen Storch, a labor and employment partner at the law firm Kaufman Dolowich & Voluck, LLP. She says that states also have different laws with regard to what employers can require of employees. For example, in New York, where Storch practices, there is a statute that prohibits employers from discriminating against employees for lawful off-duty recreational activities.
“This statute was actually originally created to address the issue of people being able to express themselves politically, and having that not affect their workplace,” she says. So, campaigning on your own time is likely within the law. However, actively participating in violence during a protest march would not be protected.
Even if you’re acting within your rights, you still might find yourself incurring the displeasure of your firm if you’re gaining attention for your activism and associating the company with it as a result, says Elizabeth Ziemba, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Giving Back. Check your company policies, but also take some time to get a feel for general attitudes about activism by discussing questions or concerns with trusted peers or with a human resources representative.
“Most employers, especially large ones that are more likely to have these kinds of policies in place, already have established giving programs, especially larger companies may even have matching contributions programs. So those lists of organizations that the company, organization already has given their ‘stamp of approval’ is readily available to employees,” she says.
Choosing Your Cause
If you do choose to get involved in issues about which you’re passionate, there are a number of ways you can protect yourself from fallout. First, Watson says, choose reputable organizations. Review their ratings on sites that review nonprofit organizations, such as GuideStar or Charity Navigator to ensure that they’re operating appropriately. You may also check them out with the Better Business Bureau and the government agency that oversees nonprofits in your state.
Ziemba says it’s important to be realistic with the amount of time and the activities in which you’ll participate—and be clear with the organization, she says. “It’s a challenging environment, not only for people who want to engage in volunteerism, but also for nonprofit organizations. The rules are changing. The environment’s changing, and it’s just so easy to take a misstep,” she says. So, if you’re open to working on the annual gala, but not participating in meetings with or letter-writing campaigns to legislators, be open about that.
And, if you’re getting involved in controversial causes your company may not support, disassociate yourself with your employer as much as you can. Lock down privacy settings on social media accounts and remove mentions of the company so your employer won’t be inadvertently linked to your activism, Watson says.
“On an individual basis, people have to make their own decisions about what’s important. I do think there’s a tension in the corporate world between a population that is increasingly activist, divided, and a broader sort of corporate customer base that they don’t see that way necessarily. I would imagine that’s going to be kind of a real challenge going forward,” he says.