As a courtesy, I communicated to the director of the company where I work that I will be volunteering for one of the candidates running for president. I was told that I was not allowed to participate in any kind of political activity as long as I worked for the company. I asked why, fairly offended. He said that due to the fact that most of his clientele support the other candidate, he would risk losing up to 90% of his clientele. Not only am I not allowed to express my opinion or represent what I believe in as a proud American, but I also cannot even put a bumper sticker on my car, as I would risk immediate termination. What are your thoughts on these subjects?
Well, unfortunately the workplace is NOT a democracy—not in most American jobs today. I find it ironic (and outrageous), but on the subject of politics and free speech in the private-sector workplace your boss has ample leeway to take action against an employee for activity he or she finds to be politically offensive. Ultimately a union is the best solution to the lack of democracy at the workplace, but here are a couple of ways to handle this situation:
Don’t ask for permission. Would you check with your boss before going to a game of your favorite sports team? No, that’s on your own time. Make your plans, do your volunteer work and treat it as you would if your team was the arch-nemesis of your boss’s favorite sports team. If you’re a football fan, it’s how you’d treat your support of, say, the Green Bay Packers to her/his Chicago Bears; know your boss and think twice before stirring up the rivalry, but don’t deprive yourself of the sport.
As you’ve already discovered, in the workplace partisan politics can play much differently than sports rivalries. In this case, you’ve already brought your intentions to your boss, so it would be difficult to claim ignorance if you proceed anyway. This points to a different approach.
Be discreet. Political views in the workplace aren’t protected like free speech in civil society. Unless you have a collective bargaining agreement with your employer, your boss doesn’t need a reason to let you go and a disagreement over politics is as good as any other reason. If there is a high risk that your boss will find out about your volunteer activity, think twice about the potential consequences. Is there something you can do to scratch that election-time itch that’s more “behind the scenes”? Have you contacted the campaign to ask about phone banking from home? There are all kinds of creative outlets for grassroots campaigning and some support the same candidates that you do in a much less partisan way.
Note for public employees: Federal employees have to comply with the Hatch Act. Depending on your position, you may be more or less restricted from engaging in election activity. Individual states have similar-type restrictions for their public employees, so it’s a good idea to look at the policies that govern you in your position before going out on that door-knock or joining a phone bank.