Ever wonder what “rights” employees have to express political views in a private workplace? Or whether any limits apply to an employer seeking to encourage political participation by its employees? 

As companies consider rallying employees to support grassroots lobbying campaigns and employees engage with one another about the upcoming election (or perhaps seek to take time off to work on a campaign), it is essential that both employers and employees understand the laws that govern these activities - including state employment laws.

There is no federal law prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of political affiliation, but certain state employment laws address workplace politics. In California, for example, employers are prohibited from making, adopting, or enforcing any rule, regulation or policy preventing employees from participating in politics or running for office, controlling employees’ political affiliation or activities, or coercing employees to follow or refrain from any political action or activity. Missouri has a similar law protecting the political affiliations and activities of employees. In Washington state, no employer or labor organization may discriminate against an employee because that employee supports or opposes a political party, candidate, or otherwise.  

Other states have gone a step further to limit an employer’s ability to present its political views to employees. For example, in New Jersey, employers may not require employees to attend mandatory meetings designed to communicate the employer’s opinion about political matters. Such coercive behavior also is prohibited by California law. In Oregon, employers may not use “undue influence” – such as the threat of loss of employment – to induce an employee to vote a certain way or contribute to a particular candidate.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, which recognized a corporate right to finance election ads and other communications (if not coordinated with a party or candidate), we anticipate more states will seek to regulate workplace politics.

While there is no specific federal employment discrimination law that enumerates political advocacy as a protected interest, a later blog post will address the National Labor Relations Act(“NLRA”) protections for political activity in the workplace.