An employee should be fired when their speech diminishes a brand’s product.
I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. Seek legal help within your jurisdiction to reduce legal risk.
We are only a decade into a social media era, and both employees and employers are struggling with what is acceptable to share and what are the repercussions. To a certain extent, employees are brand ambassadors, but what defines that extent is what we are struggling with as a culture. Poor decisions have been made by employees and employers, and there has been damage done to top tier brands.
All of this is playing out in the media. Hearing about these cases may have you thinking about your companies response, or you may be dealing with an employee that has shared something like these people did.
|Colin Kaepernick||Refused to stand during national anthem because of racial injustice||49ers (NFL)||Contract expired. Now a free agent.|
|Roseanne Barr||Racist comparison of former presidential senior advisor||ABC (indirectly)||Cancelled “Rosanne” TV show|
|James Damore||Criticised diversity training and hiring on leaked post from an internal blog.||Fired|
|Tomi Lahren||Expressed pro-choice view based on a belief in limited government||The Blaze||Suspended until fired|
|Cenk Uygur||Right-wing blog posts found from decades previous||Justice Democrats||Resigned|
|Lindsay Shepherd||Showed a university class a debate re. transgender pronouns||Wilfred Laurier||Reprimanded by her supervisor and two university officials|
This issue is the intersection of two societal forced. Opinions on politics have become more charged and divisive than ever before, and employees have greater power than ever to express their political opinions to a broad audience. We need to balance damage to the brand with free speech rights.
Free speech in the western world means that the government cannot pass laws or take action against an individual because of their speech. A common misconception is that private organizations are legally held to the same standard. In reality, employers can fire employees, cease business with suppliers, and refuse to do business with customers based on speech they don’t agree with. Free speech is a right, but not without social consequence.
The legal standard for a company is a far lower bar than the public relations standard for a brand; a company or it’s employee can do something legal but insensitive, and customers are within their rights to spend their money with another brand they feel good about supporting.
Every employee (and stakeholders more broadly) is an ambassador of the brand; you ideally want people with high moral character. But, you cannot hire only people that hold the same political opinions; a workplace diverse with people of different backgrounds and ways of thinking has been proven to be more effective. A diversity of experiences and opinions leads to better inputs for decision making and in turn, better decision. You cannot expect the employees of that diverse workforce to never express a political opinion, especially when they are not on the job. So, you are stuck in a catch 22 as an employer.
The bottom line is that you should err on the side of keeping an employee and having a conversation, unless and until the political expression diminishes the value of the product or makes it harder to sell or affects your ability to raise capital.
Companies are lacking tools to deal with this new social media world where the brand can be damaged by a stakeholder’s political opinion published independently going viral. We have some questions below to ask to navigate a tough situation. Feel free to use these in your companies policies.
Is the political view relating to a law regarding work in your industry? Is the political view about a union or employee association?
Note: There are regulations protecting employees discussion regarding the terms and conditions of employment. Your actions as an employer may be legally limited.
For example, a miner talking about supporting a candidate intending to reform safety regulation. Another example, a unionized worker posting in support of collective bargaining agreement. This isn’t limited to blue collar jobs; another example would be a manager talking about pay equity.
If Yes: Consult your HR team and a lawyer.
If No: Proceed to the next question.
Does the political view degrade the value of our product, or make it more challenging to sell the product?
Note: For example, the answer would be “yes” if a TSA agent expresses that airport security is a joke. Or if an employee of a political organization expresses an opinion counter to something in the organization’s platform. The Roseanne Barr situation would be “yes” to this question because the value of the TV show and it’s ads become harder to sell if the actress who is featured in the title is perceived to be a racist.
If Yes: The employee needs to be fired.
If No: Proceed to the next question.
Does the political view demonstrate hostility to a race, sex, religion, national origin and sexual orientation represented by someone within the employee’s peers?
Note: The expressed view needs to be directly hostile, not hostile by association. For example, they support a political candidate with hostile views, you can’t assume that they hold those views. Further discussion with the employee would be warranted.
If Yes: The employee needs to be fired or transferred. The other employee’s right to have a safe work environment free of hostility trumps the right for the hostile employee to keep their job.
If No: Proceed to the next question.
Did the employee express their view externally where they could be considered an ‘agent of the organization?’
Note: This is not regarding employee to employee political talk; this is an employee talking to current or potential customers, vendors or investors. An employee is considered an agent of the company if the brand of the company is anywhere within context: if they are in uniform, if they are a salesperson, if they are on LinkedIn, if they are in human resources, if they are an officer, etc.
If Yes: Assuming your company doesn’t discuss politics (eg. news commentary or lobbying), a formally documented discussion with the employee needs to happen. The employee needs acknowledge that they cannot express their political opinions while an agent of the organization, but are encouraged to express themselves while in a personal context.
Issue a press release, or talk to the affected customers / vendors / investors and say that this person views are their own and they do not speak for the organization.
If No: Read the below paragraphs.
If you were triggered to seek this article out and read it this far, then you were extremely motivated to seek an answer. Have you considered that the employee did nothing wrong, but their expressed belief conflicts with one of your beliefs?
Having an employee that holds a belief that you consider to be wrong is challenging. It can make you feel conflicted, and you may feel as if you are supporting the belief when you are supporting the employee. It may be worth having an explicitly “off the record,” casual, non-confrontational conversation with the employee to see where the belief comes from. Please, do not try to change their mind.
Beliefs will change in time, and you may find that their beliefs or your beliefs may soften. You need to give time so that can happen. In the meantime, be happy that you have a diversity of thought in your organization; it is proven to make your organization more effective.