Yes, you can be fired for expressing your political views at work

GrubHub CEO Matt Maloney recently caused a stir over an email to employees expressing his opinions on the 2016 US presidential election.

As Matt Weinberger previously reported for Business Insider, Maloney wrote: “While demeaning, insulting and ridiculing minorities, immigrants and the physically/mentally disabled worked for Mr. Trump, I want to be clear that this behavior — and these views, have no place at GrubHub. Had he worked here, many of his comments would have resulted in his immediate termination.”  

The CEO followed up the email with a press release clarifying his views, noting that he “intended to advocate for inclusion and tolerance” not “ask for anyone to resign if they voted for Trump.”

While some might have interpreted Maloney’s initial email differently than how it was meant, it’s actually not illegal in the United States for bosses to tell their employees who to vote for or to terminate employees based on speech — with several important caveats.

This all started with the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed companies to endorse and campaign for political candidates. This means that, in most cases, your boss can send out a mass email telling you to support a certain politician, according to Steven Greenhouse writing for The New York Times. Note that your boss can try to influence your vote, but they cannot influence your ultimate ballot.

But what about the First Amendment? Well, as Sydney Ember at the New York Times reported last year, the Bill of Rights won’t protect workers in the private sector from being fired over speech in or outside the workplace — it only protects you from the government. In certain states like New York and California, bosses can only influence their workers’ votes within limits and cannot discriminate based on employees’ political activities or beliefs (unless it interferes with their work). Government workers tend to enjoy more free speech in the workplace.

According to a 2016 Harvard University study, 25% of 1,032 survey respondents claimed that their bosses have sent them politically focused messages. Unsurprisingly, most people weren’t too happy about that, with 70% of participants saying that there should be limits on political campaigning at work.

Joe Weinlick, senior vice president at Beyond, a career network focused on workplace environment and legal issues, says that good leaders shouldn’t stifle opposing political speech in the workplace, as this could lead to a toxic work environment.

“Interestingly, though, this type of commentary — saying what you are thinking with no filter — is exactly what Trump does that upsets people,” Weinlick told Business Insider. While Maloney may have “crossed the line” by sending an email that could be misinterpreted, he said, “he has since clarified his comments, and perhaps there is a lesson for all of us that in this age of hyper-connectedness we need to not only be careful about what we communicate, but also careful not to judge people solely by what we learn from social media.”

No matter what, it’s probably best to leave the politics outside the office whenever possible. As Rachel Gillett previously reported for Business Insider, “As an employee expressing yourself at work, you have fewer protections than you’d think — and if your boss doesn’t like what they hear, you could get fired for it.”

So tread with caution.

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