How to Handle Employees with Extreme Political Views

Addressing the challenges of the last week with politically motivated workers.

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David Rice
01/11/2021

employees political

The events of the last week have laid bare one undeniable fact: the politics of the day are deeply ingrained in the American psyche. As the President’s supporters were manipulated into storming the capitol, the nation watched in real time courtesy of social media and around the clock news coverage.

To put it lightly, productivity took a hit on January 6, but that was likely the least of HR’s workplace concerns on the day. In recent years, politics has become an ever more present topic in the workplace, at dinner tables and on public streets leading to more divisiveness, anxiety and in some cases, anger.

Predictably, Wednesday’s events have already had repercussions for some. The media is flooded with stories of people being identified at the rally and events at the Capitol building subsequently being terminated by their employers. One employee was foolish enough to wear his company badge during the attack and was photographed in it, leaving the employer little choice but to act.

Another was the general counsel and Director of Human Resources at an insurance firm. That individual actually live streamed his participation, again leaving the company little choice.

READ: The Importance of Addressing Social Issues in the Workplace

Not all cases are so cut and dry, but it seems as though patience for the sort of rhetoric and behavior that led to the events of the day are finally running low. As an article from Tech Crunch notes, venture capitalist leaders took to Twitter to make clear their view that what was taking place was, in no uncertain terms, unacceptable and provide reason to discontinue their relationship, with one VC tweeting “if you still support Trump after this, never talk to me again.”

Things may have finally reached a tipping point. With much of the population fed up with conspiracy theories, blatant lies being told in the halls of power and a media landscape that has essentially fractured objective reality for those who consume it, the question to ponder becomes how much of people’s politics do employers have to accept?

The Law

While some states place regulations on actions that companies can take when employees are off the clock and participating in lawful activities, there is no federal guideline on dismissing someone for reasons related to their participation in protest or other legal political action. Private employers are covered by at-will policies. Participation in violent protests such as the ones on January 6 or the Charlottesville protests in 2017 can be determined to be “off-duty bad conduct” which should be explained up front at the time of hiring in your employee handbook.

Some employees may cite the first amendment as a reason they can’t be dismissed from work, but this is a misunderstanding of the amendment, as it doesn’t extend to protections for employment. Additionally, employers can turn to Title VII to dismiss someone for inappropriate political views as it protects workers from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. If someone is publicly expressing opinions or supporting movements (such as white supremacists) that promote philosophies of hate, the employer can attribute their mere presence to creating a hostile work environment.

For employees who are arrested during a protest, it's important to distinguish between an arrest and conviction. The Equal Employement Opportunity Commission notes that a decision about an employees future can be made based on the underlying actions that lead to an arrest, but the arrest itself is not enough. Convictions are seen as a more reliable indictment of employee actions than the arrest itself, which can happen for a variety of reasons and impact employees differently by race. 

Aligning with Values

Once an employee is publicly identified, it’s only a matter of time before internet sleuths connect them to your company. This can then create a branding issue and call into question the company’s values.

One CHRO who wished to remain anonymous in talking about this subject told HR Exchange Network that “evidence of them committing a crime, even if they haven’t been charged, we would terminate employment immediately. Additionally, if it wasn’t breaking the law, but instead exhibiting behavior in public that was not in alignment with our values, we would terminate for that as well. Immediately. No questions asked.”

The branding issue is something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by many companies. Corporations around the country took to social media to condemn the behavior of the president’s supporters.

But what if it’s not an overt act such as what took place at the Capitol. Most extreme political views find their way out into the world via the internet, particularly on social media channels. In this case, the conduct may not warrant a dismissal, but a conversation about how they conduct themselves online.

Firing them over social media behavior could be seen as extreme and lead the person to become more extreme in their views or to blame or target colleagues who they believe took offense to their behavior. Sometimes, it's better to simply confront the person and explain that their views and actions, while they are entitled to have them, do not align with company values and could be an issue if their behavior becomes too extreme, puts the company’s reputation at risk or threatens the safety of others.

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