Can your boss tell you how to vote? Surprisingly, the answer is yes.
This question took center stage when Westgate's CEO emailed his 7,000 workers warning, "I will have no choice but to reduce the size of this company" and may even shut the company down if President (Barack) Obama wins the election. Soon after that, Georgia Pacific's owners emailed their 45,000 workers warning that if they vote for the wrong candidate they'll "suffer the consequences" from higher gasoline prices to runaway inflation. When queried, these owners said they were simply educating their employees.
Before the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, federal election law allowed corporate CEOs to talk to corporate officers and shareholders but not to employees about whom to vote for. Now, corporations can send out newsletters persuading employees to vote for certain candidates. Legal experts note that federal laws don't even prohibit private-sector company executives from making implied threats such as "we'll lay off workers or close this company if certain candidates win election."
Further, employers can legally make employment decisions on the basis of an employee's political participation or lack of participation. In the last presidential election, an employer fired an employee for having a presidential candidate's bumper sticker on her car, shocking many who believed employee political views to be insulated from their boss's whims.
Employers may not, however, bribe employees nor induce employees to give money to or fundraise for certain candidates. Additionally, employers need to maintain a non- discriminatory and harassment-free environment. For example, employers need to ensure employees don't make discriminatory comments about President Obama's race, Gov. Romney's religion or say to co-workers "you only support the female candidate because you're a woman." Employers may ban political discussions that interfere with work; however, they have to enforce these bans equally and for all candidates.
Meanwhile, employees have rights. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) provides private-sector employees, union and non-union, the right to engage in "concerted activities for their mutual aid or protection." This includes political expression directly related to employment issues. For example, if employees feel electing a candidate may improve the economy and thus their wages or job benefits, they can voice their thoughts.
Although employees can feel and say what they want, they can't say it whenever they want. For example, employees cannot run though the hallways shouting, "Obama supports minimum wage" instead of working or if it disrupts other workers. Additionally, employees can be political activists on their own time.
Finally, in this highly charged political season, managers and employees need to realize their fervently-held views -- if different from those they work with -- can create massive discord. It pays to keep political discussions respectful and focused on issues and to "give it a rest" when you realize you're talking to someone whose mind is made up. Although we can try to influence how others vote, when each of us enters the voting booth, we -- and our employees, managers and co-workers -- can vote for whomever we want.
Dr. Lynne Curry is a management-employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Co., Inc. Send your questions to her at www.thegrowthcompany.com.