No: Should workers engage in political activism on the job?

There are news stories, at least in my state, of workers protesting or striking against their employer for not being permitted to wear political advocacy buttons or t-shirts or hats on the job. This applies to both customer facing and non-customer facing workers, all though most such workers are in customer facing positions.

At first glance, these activities seem innocuous. But there are numerous problems when companies begin staking out political positions.

First, and most obvious, is that many customers may disagree with the political positions – even to the point of being offended and taking their business elsewhere.

Second, not all employees may agree with the political positions – and the advocacy of politics in the work place may lead to not merely uncomfortable positions for those who may hold a minority position but may lead to a hostile work environment.

Third, is appropriate to use the brand name of your employer to promote your own political advocacy? How does this influence the buyer’s perception of the company’s brand? Note – some companies actively engage in “cause marketing” – think of outdoor equipment companies that promote environmental initiatives. Their goal is to specifically associate their brand with environmentalism. This is a managed process intended to deliver benefits to the brand. But consider if the employees decided, while on the job, to promote an initiative to develop a vacant plot of land – because it would increase the value of the employee’s homes in that neighborhood. This create a peculiar association with a brand associated with environmental stewardship and may damage the value of the brand.

Fourth, where do we draw a line? Is some politics okay but other politics is not okay? Does the employer get to decide which politics are “approved” and which are not – thereby effectively giving an “in kind” donation to one political party or advocacy group?

Is politics okay by upper management who have the ability to influence the future work opportunities of employees who may agree or disagree?

Here is an example of an extreme situation. But it is a real situation that occurred at a business I once worked at: the general manager of our division and his wife were co-owners of a major league sports team.

The team wanted the government to build them a 90+% publicly funded sports palace, otherwise known as a luxury stadium. An initiative to increase taxes to pay for this stadium, whose primary beneficiary was the team owners (which were granted monopoly on the sport in the metro area), was on the ballot.

It was not a secret that the general manager – who ultimately had hiring, firing, promotion and pay authority over everyone in the group – co-owned the sports team. Everyone knew that.

The problem was the email messages the day before the election reminding us to vote on the important ballot initiative the next day, and including something to the effect of “you will know how to vote!”

Gee, any pressure on how we were supposed to vote? (HR got involved after the election and said this was wrong but besides being too late, it is unclear that there were any consequences for the general manager.)

The question then becomes – if we allow some politicking on the job, where and how do we draw a line?

Is it okay for some employees to engage in politicking on the job but not others?

Is it okay for some employees provided their political message is politically correct or politically popular or approved by some other authority? Who gets to decide?

The best course of action is that politics stays out of the work place. Pursue political activities on your own time.