Employees may face discipline, termination for talking politics at work

Q&A with Courtney Bru

published in The Oklahoman | October 25, 2016

With the 2016 presidential election shaping up to be one of the most contentious in U.S. history, it’s not surprising that heated discussions about candidates and policies sometimes overflow into the workplace, causing disruptions to a company’s operations and overall morale. When this happens, can employers take action against such conduct? Or do employees have the right to free speech?

In a Business Q&A with The Oklahoman, McAfee & Taft labor and employment attorney Courtney Bru answered these questions, saying that the free speech rights of employees vary on whether they work for a private or public employer, but in neither instance do workers have unlimited speech rights.

“Private employers generally are free to take disciplinary action of the basis of speech, provided they treat all similarly situated employees alike and don’t act in a discriminatory manner,” said Bru. The exception, she said, are the rights afforded to employees to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment as outlined under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.

By contrast, people who work for public employers may speak out on matters of public concern, but only if they can demonstrate their free speech interests outweigh the interests of their public employers, she said. “Public employers may discipline employees whose speech carries little value, is discriminatory or obscene, adversely impacts the integrity or functions of the public employer, or adversely affects morale.”