Seyfarth Synopsis: Private employers can face competing obligations when it comes to responding to employees’ expressive conduct. Employee rights may collide with employer obligations to maintain a safe and harassment-free work environment, not to mention the employer’s interest in maintaining productivity and avoiding adverse publicity. Here are some guiding principles.

“How’s work?” A common question, whether at a party, catching up with an old friend, or just as small talk. It is also a common topic of online conversation. It would be nice if work-related remarks were always positive, agreeable and civil, but, of course, they are not. The reality is that employees sometimes say offensive things about work, their employer, their co-workers, or a co-worker’s cherished political hero or ideals.

And what of the employee who attends a political rally—either as a protester or counter-protester—or does not attend, but merely posts or tweets an incendiary opinion about the event?

What is an employer’s recourse when such communications cross the line? Where is the line?

As a general rule, unless the employee is using company-owned equipment or systems, employers cannot police their employees’ expression. Various California statutes protect employees’ rights to engage in lawful, off-duty conduct (Lab. Code §§ 96, 98.6) and political activity (Lab. Code §§ 1102, 1103), to say nothing of the California constitutional right to privacy, which applies in both the public and private sectors. Meanwhile, the federal National Labor Relations Act prohibits employers from chilling employee participation in concerted activity with respect to their terms and conditions of employment.

Generally, as long as controversial comments and ideas are lawfully expressed, do not implicate a protected class (such as race, religion, gender), do not name or implicate the employer, and remain out of the workplace, they are none of the employer’s business.

The trouble starts when a controversial comment is not lawfully expressed, implicates a protected class, implicates the employer, or has a deleterious effect in the workplace. Competing against the employee rights set out above are the employer’s duties to prevent and correct harassment in the workplace and to provide a safe workplace. Failure to do so can lead to hostile work environment or retaliation claims, regardless of whether the harassment comes from a supervisor or a co-worker.

Not all offensive remarks will be cause for concern: to get from “how’s work?” to a hostile work environment claim, an employee’s comments must relate to a protected status and be sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter working conditions. But in todays’ highly charged political environment, many people look to their places of employment as the last bastion of civility and stability. Discussion of events, images, symbols, or social media memes concerning topics as varied as immigration, same-sex marriage, transgender rights, and the history of American slavery and its aftermath may, depending on the communication’s content and context, be freighted with racial or gender connotations.

For most people, perception is reality. Remarks or conduct that several years ago would not have raised an eyebrow may now lead to multiple disgruntled people in the HR office, seeking action. And while California employees are guaranteed privacy, the privacy right does not prevent an appropriate reaction from an employer in response to a public online posting, text message, or comment. As someone once said: “Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences.”

There is no magic bullet to making sure your employees play nice. But there are several steps you can take to ensure that they know what will and will not be tolerated. You can set employee expectations by implementing or reminding them of your anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policy, your code of conduct, your “zero tolerance” policy regarding violence, your social media policy, and your rules concerning use of company internet and other electronic communication systems. We recommend that employers articulate a strong business purpose to justify any occasions when they must intrude on an employee’s privacy, and never intrude more than is necessary to serve that business purpose.

Interpretation of the laws around employee workplace rights and the intersection with employer duties to comply with anti-harassment and OSHA laws are constantly evolving, particularly with the ever-increasing use of social media.