In today’s political climate, we have all seen how heated political debates can get. A perfectly pleasant Thanksgiving dinner with family can instantly turn hostile once the topic of politics comes up. But what happens when that political fervor carries over into the workplace? Can a private sector employee be fired for his or her political beliefs or political affiliation? The short answer is: it depends on where you are.
Federal anti-discrimination laws protect private sector employees from discrimination on the basis of a number of characteristics, including sex, race, age, and religion – but NOT political affiliation. Under federal law, it is generally legal for a private employer to fire an employee because of the employee’s political affiliation or political activity.
However, there are a number of state and local laws that provide protection. Unfortunately, state and local laws run the gamut in terms of what political activity is or is not protected. For example, the D.C. Human Rights Act (DCHRA) explicitly makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate “with respect to . . . compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, including promotion” on the basis of political party affiliation. Other states such as California prohibit an employer from retaliating against an employee for engaging in “political activities.” Another handful of states, including Colorado, protect employees from discrimination based on “lawful activity off the premises of the employer during nonworking hours,” which would include out-of-work political activities. Furthermore, most states require employers to allow employees to take time off to vote. However, even in some states that provide protection against political affiliation/activity discrimination, there are exceptions—such as when the employee’s political activities conflict with the employer’s business model. Because of the wide variation in laws and the potential exceptions, it is important to contact an employee discrimination attorney to help you understand the specific laws in your state.
An employment lawyer can also help you identify other avenues of protection for political speech and political activity. For example, if your employer discriminates against you because you support a candidate who is African American or Hispanic, you may be able to invoke Title VII’s federal protection against retaliation on the basis of race or national origin. Similarly, if an employer retaliates against a female employee for attending the Women’s March, but does not take action against male employees who attend political events, Title VII’s gender discrimination provisions may provide protection.
If you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation on the basis of political affiliation or political activity, the attorneys at Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP can help you understand your rights.