What employees should know about expressing their political beliefs outside the workplace

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As the U.S. presidential election draws near, it's seemingly inevitable that the topic of politics will come up at work. According to a February Glassdoor poll of over 1,200 employed adults, 57% of workers say they have talked about politics while on the job — even though 60% say they "believe discussing politics at work is unacceptable."

Employers play a role in managing political speech in the workplace, whether workers are remote or in-person, says Vanessa Matsis-McCready, associate general counsel and director of HR at Engage PEO, an HR service provider.

It's up to HR leaders to remind employees of company policies, says Matsis-McCready, such as asking them not to display prominent slogans or logos in their work space (whether that's a worker's physical desk, their Zoom background or even a shirt visible on a video call). In this case, leaders can clarify that their existing policy extends to campaign merchandise for a particular party or candidate. If employers agree displaying signs, even political ones, won't disrupt the workplace and allow it, Matsis-McCready advises that leaders ensure it is a neutral policy and that they enforce it uniformly.

Employers can also remind employees that some political speech may not be protected in the workplace depending on the state where they live, or if it's not related to their working conditions (which is protected under the National Labor Relations Act, or NLRA) and if it impacts their performance during work hours.

Beyond the work day, however, Matsis-McCready tells CNBC Make It that workers should be aware of what protections they may have depending on laws at the state level.

Laws vary state by state

Some states protect employees who engage in political activity outside of work, which can include signing a petition, attending a rally or running for office.

There are exceptions if outside political activity ends up interfering with an employee's performance in the workplace. For example, if you take a paid day off of work to attend a rally, or you participate on the weekend when you're off the clock, you're likely in the clear. But if you call in sick, or simply don't show up to work, you could face disciplinary action from your employer.

However, even in states that protect workers' off-duty conduct, employees could be disciplined or terminated if they've been arrested for violating the law — such as if protesters are arrested for what is deemed as "unlawful activity."

With that said, states have varying laws regarding arrest and conviction records, and an arrest doesn't necessarily mean that someone has engaged in unlawful activity. Some states and companies have their own rules about whether employees are required to disclose an arrest to their employer. And some fields like medicine, education, law enforcement and commercial driving, can require a greater level of disclosure due to the nature of the work.

Some state laws protect all lawful off-duty activities, including making political posts on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. And under the NLRA, employees may be able to post freely about their employer and assert a political opinion if it can be viewed as protected concerted activity — such as if you speak out about your company's pay practices and endorse a political candidate who supports raising the federal minimum wage.

And rules vary by company

Your employer may have its own policies regarding employee conduct or social media use that could impact your political activity even when you're off the clock. For example, your employer can prohibit workers from wearing uniforms out in public that show they represent the organization while doing any kind of off-duty work.

These policies could also vary if you're involved with political work as part of your job, Matsis-McCready adds. She gives the example of someone who works for a marketing firm that's been hired to make signs for a political candidate running for office. An employee could face disciplinary action if their behavior outside of work — including, but not limited to, speaking negatively about the candidate — ends up hurting the business.

"An individual is not required to personally support a candidate that their company supports but must be mindful that they could be unintentionally impacting their employer through their actions outside of work," Matsis-McCready says. "Similarly, employees should be held to the same professional and performance standards regardless of their political affiliation."

Likewise, employees could be in violation of company policies if they share trade secrets by way of social media posts or otherwise. For example, if someone who works as a political analyst expresses personal concern online that a candidate is leading in the polls, based on data only they know because of their job. "You don't want to use proprietary information on your personal feed or outside the scope of your work," Matsis-McCready says.

Ultimately, a lot of what is considered protected and allowable behavior from a workplace perspective, including political engagement on your personal time, will come down to the state where you live, the nature of the views you're expressing and whether your company states in an employee handbook, contract or otherwise whether certain behavior may be subject to investigation or discipline.

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