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Can I Be Fired for My Position on a Political Issue?

DILEMMA

I am an “advertising and sales consultant” with a salary and all the benefits of a good job. We have a particularly volatile political issue in our community, and my boss recently made strong statements with his opinion on this issue in a staff meeting. Our company has a policy, I am told, though I have never seen it in writing, that we will not be “too political” on the job. This has meant that I have not been able to run for city council while employed here, even though this has been a dream of mine.

In response to this incident, I confronted the leadership of the company about this duplicity, and they then backed off and told me I could pursue my political agenda if it was done on private time and did not distract from the business of selling advertising space, the definition of my job.

Things took a turn for the worse when I then sponsored a Web site coming down on the opposite side from my boss on the political issue. I was quickly reprimanded and politely asked (pressured) to remove the Web site. I took the Web site down, but I thought about it long and hard for the next few days. In my mind I considered it wrong for an employer to ask me to do this just because I disagreed with him. So I reinstated the Web site.

Now, I have been on an “unpaid leave” for more than a month and I expect a “letter of importance” this Tuesday. I expect to be terminated.

What do you think? Did they have a right to “silence” me? (freedom of speech)

Caught in Office Politics

RESPONSE

Dear “Caught:”

The situation in which you find is unfortunate and illustrates how technology has further blurred the lines between our “private” and “public” lives, especially with respect to issues such as privacy and freedom of speech in the workplace. Recently, more media reports have surfaced of employers firing workers for what was written on “personal” blogs, and/or displayed at Web sites such as myspace.com.

Let me first qualify my statement by saying that I am not a lawyer. However, assuming that you are only an “at-will” employee (i.e., not covered by an employment contract or other contractual protections), your employer probably does have the “legal” right to fire you. The first amendment governs freedom from government interference, not the action of private employers. In the past, some courts have reasoned that since employees can work elsewhere, their freedom of speech has not been taken away by policies that restrict what they can say. In other words, you are free to speak as you wish, just not as an employee of xyz corporation.

While your employer may have the legal right, the larger question perhaps is whether or not he or she is right from an ethical standpoint. On this question, I do think that employers can take reasonable steps (such as discouraging potentially divisive speech, and even firing employees in some cases) to protect their interests. However, I would question the wisdom of managing a workplace along distinctly political lines, unless doing so is directly tied to the well-being of the company (i.e., in the case of a business that does fundraising for organizations on one side of the political spectrum). Making managerial decisions along political lines would obviously chase away potentially good employees, unnecessarily divide the workforce (especially when teamwork is such a necessity) and may invite outright dishonesty (faking a position to please the boss).

A much better approach is to simply discourage speech that restrains effectiveness and teamwork, and to have it practiced by all members of the organization, including the boss.

Kenman Wong
Professor of Ethics, School of Business and Economics
Seattle Pacific University

If you have an ethical dilemma at your workplace,
email Ethics at Work (eaw@ethix.org).
We will publish some of these in
Ethix along with our diagnosis.

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