The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees US citizens the right to “freedom of speech.” Citizens may freely express themselves in a public forum on any subject, including political topics, and rest assured that there will be no detrimental consequences. This is a known fact and beyond contest. Right?
The First Amendment reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Oh, those pesky details. Note the amendment specifies “Congress shall make no law.” Unless a person is an employee of Congress, those precious freedom of speech protections may not apply.
Before you join in a protest or send that Tweet, there are a few precautions you should consider:
When social media enters the mix, the potential risks for speaking one’s mind increase exponentially with each “like,” “share” and “tweet.” Expressing political views on a contentious issue or actively promoting and endorsing a candidate (or even not promoting a specific candidate) can pose a risk. If an employer believes an employee’s stated opinion or supported political candidate reflects negatively on the company, or that their actions fall below an expected level of professionalism, the employee may face disciplinary action that could end in termination.
Those practicing activism via the Internet use email, social media postings, live-casting and podcasts to communicate and disseminate information.
Online political activism is usually categorized in one of three ways: awareness and advocacy, organization and mobilization, or action/reaction. Examples could include:
Any of these activities, even those undertaken from a private home or public venue, or those taking place during nonworking hours can be grounds for discipline and/or termination.
An online footprint can go so far as to hinder one’s chances in the hiring process. Recruiting expert Alysse Metzler, in her 2013 book “The Recruiting Snitch,” found over 70 percent of recruiters for US companies investigate potential employees on social media before hiring. According to Metzler, an online presence dominated by political views raises warning flags.
It is human nature to take a “That won’t happen to me” approach to hypothetical situations, such as getting fired for making a post to Facebook. But the reality is that it does happen. There are cases now making their way through the court systems in which employers terminated employees for participating in organized activism, for political statements and affiliations.
In the coming years, the lines between what is and is not protected speech may be more clearly delineated. Employers may revise their company handbook or onboarding materials to clarify definitions of which activities are acceptable and which are not.
Until then, take care in what you do and say. Neither employee nor employer is as protected as they may seem.
Employee handbook mistakes can range from the seemingly silly to the outright illegal, and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) came down hard on many handbook practices in the last year. Positive employee relations best practices dictate careful consideration of the contents of your handbook and regular employee communication as that handbook is reviewed annually. Here are five common mistakes that human resources personnel and handbook developers make when they create the handbooks; be sure to contact a labor attorney to ask specific questions or to review your handbook.
When you copy from an Internet template or take another company’s handbook to use as your own with some search-and-replace work thrown in, you tread in dangerous territory. By all means, you should use other handbooks and handbook examples to guide your work. Just do not copy them, especially policies. Even if policies and handbook sections are written in precise language that applies to your business, they might not pass the legal sniff test in your state or city. Plus, your business and your approach to positive employee relations are unique. Make your handbook unique as well, and do not plagiarize.
The point of a handbook is to explain and clarify your company’s policies and procedures. A handbook must be readable and clearly communicate with employees, yet many are cluttered with jargon. In some cases, the jargon is there to protect the company against potential future legal action, but do not go down this route. Instead, protect your company by aiming for positive employee relations and crafting an accessible and legally compliant document.
Your employee handbook needs to leave a lot of room for flexibility and to avoid verbs such as “will” and “shall.” Instead, use verbs such as “may,” especially when discussing policies and possible disciplinary actions. An employee handbook is not supposed to be a contract, but using rigid language positions it in terms of a contract, and can even be a negative instead of a positive.
Many employers do not want their employees to participate in behaviors such as, say, posting complaints about their salaries on Facebook or holding meetings to improve their working conditions. Therefore, quite a few handbooks try to restrict confidentiality and what employees can do, but this is illegal. Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act allows employees the freedom to participate in many behaviors for mutual aid and protection.
Be sure to communicate with employees regularly and clearly regarding your company’s expectations. Employee communication need not be difficult or cumbersome process. Consider video or a website to enhance and explain the information in your company handbook and make the information accessible to every employee.