Think Twice Before Firing an Employee for Political Reasons
There has been a lot of media attention recently over companies firing employees based on their political views and activities, or otherwise making known to employees that company leadership is of a particular political mindset and that contrary beliefs are not welcome. Based on these publicized stories, there may be a growing tendency for other companies to want to “jump on the bandwagon” and take similar action to distance themselves from employees with unpopular or extreme political views. If you are a California employer, that is not a great idea. California has several laws protecting employees’ rights to engage in lawful political expression and political activity. Labor Code sections 1101 and 1102 prohibit employers from attempting to coerce or influence the political activities or affiliations of their employees. These laws further prohibit employers from retaliating against an employee (e.g. firing an employee) because of the employee’s political activity. Similarly, Labor Code section 96(k) prohibits employers from taking adverse action against an employee based on the employee’s lawful off-duty conduct (including political activity) occurring away from the employer’s premises. Violation of these laws can lead to a claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy and possible damages including back pay, emotional distress, and punitive damages.
This is not to say that an employer’s hands are completely tied when it comes to employee political conduct. If the conduct is unlawful (and the employer has pretty good evidence of this), then it is not protected. Similarly, workplace conduct that is hostile, unprofessional, disruptive of work, or inciteful can be dealt with via discipline, even if the conduct relates to one’s political views.