Let’s face it, Thanksgiving dinner was at least a little awkward this year for some people. Though the election was over a month ago, talk about the election continues to seep into nearly every facet of our lives. Not only did politics likely dominate Thanksgiving, but it likely made its way into the office.
Most of the political discourse over the past year has been nothing short of tense. Obviously, tense political discussions can make the workplace uncomfortable. So the question becomes: can these discussions occur in the workplace at all? Also, how much can a private employer influence these discussions?
All employers are responsible for creating a healthy working environment for their employees, free of issues of hostility, harassment, and discrimination. These issues can rear their ugly heads in political discussions. Talking politics can start civilly, but eventually lead into discriminatory behavior, even if the discrimination is not explicit. One employee may comment on a candidate’s gender, race, identity, religion, or other defining characteristic and insult a fellow employee. Subtly, the insult creates a discriminatory environment. New Jersey law protects employees from discrimination and harassment in the workplace. So what, then, can an employer do and can they be held responsible for this kind of problem?
New Jersey employees do not have a protected right to political discussions in the workplace. A private employer has the right to regulate political speech in the workplace. However, an employer must regulate political speech in a consistent manner. For instance, if an employee puts up a sticker showing support for one candidate over another, or for a new bill being proposed, an employer cannot tell that employee to take down the sticker, but then permit another employee to put up a sticker supporting the other candidate. Consistent employer policies are necessary to avoid workplace discrimination.
A common misconception of employees is that their political speech is protected by the First Amendment and therefore, their employer cannot stop them from making their political statements. The First Amendment does not prohibit private employers from restricting speech. Instead, the First Amendment protects against government restriction of speech.
Another equally important note is that while an employer can restrict political speech, an employer cannot force an employee to vote for a candidate N.J.S.A. 19:34-27, or require an employee to attend employer-sponsored meetings or participate in communications that are meant to espouse the employer’s opinion on political matters. Requiring an employee to attend or participate in these meetings is a violation of the Work Freedom from Employer Intimidation Act, N.J.S.A. 34:19-9.
Matthew R. Tavares focuses his practice in Litigation, Employment Law, and School Law matters. He is a trained mediator and has successfully mediated small claims and special civil part matters.
Mr. Tavares received his Juris Doctor from Western New England University School of Law in 2013, and obtained licensure in New Jersey in the same year. Matthew was sworn in as a member of the New York State Bar in February 2016. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in American History and Criminal Justice in 2010 from the University of Delaware. Matt is a member of the Hunterdon County Bar Association, is a member of the New Jersey State Bar Association.
You may contact Matt at (908) 751-1551, or [email protected]