Different political views are routinely communicated in news outlets. Our country is extremely polarized. Not only do strangers openly proclaim their differing views, but families, friends, and co-workers often vocalize vastly different political ideologies and opinions. What happens when an employee expresses political views that are not consistent with the employer’s views?
In California, an employer may not terminate an employee for political activity that does not affect the employee’s job performance. California Labor Code § 1101 prevents employers from restricting an employee’s ability to participate in the political process or become a candidate for public office. In addition, this law prevents employers from directing the employees’ political activities. Consequently, an employer may not prevent employees from activity such as distributing campaign literature, attending a rally, or running for a political office. Similarly, an employer may not require employees to promote a particular candidate or platform. If the political activity at issue does not present a conflict with the business, then the activity should be acceptable. However, employees should not automatically conclude they are protected in all political activities.
Unfortunately, an employee may not always anticipate the outcome of a planned political event. An employee may set out to attend a political rally or march on the individual’s day off. Much to the person’s surprise, the rally attracts dissenters, and the event spirals out-of-control. Tempers flare and the political rally rapidly grows highly contentious. Protesters become violent. Before the event concludes, the employee is photographed breaking the windows of a car. The individual is tagged on social media, and the employee has public settings on the account making the picture visible to all. Is this activity protected?
Where the employer cannot fire the employee for attending the rally, there may be cause for terminating the employee. The employer has a valid concern that the illegal act of breaking the window may have a negative association with the business. The employee committed an unlawful act by vandalizing the property. The employer has a legitimate interest in protecting the business’s reputation. A termination due to political views is unlawful, but a firing as a result of the destruction of property at the event may be legitimate, even though the act took place outside of the workplace during a political event.