Originally created 10/07/04

Picking sides is a workplace taboo



Jim Allen once listened to a senior partner at his previous law firm rant about a conservative judicial candidate.

It didn't help that a friend and co-worker of Mr. Allen, who was the candidate's campaign manager, also was sitting in on the meeting.

"What was she supposed to do?" he said. "Stand up for her friend and risk getting fired?"

Freedom of speech is perhaps the first right Americans learn growing up. Children at the playground often can be overheard saying, "I can say what I want. It's a free country."

But as adults know, not all speech is free, particularly in the workplace. And voicing your opinion can land you in the unemployment line.

The First Amendment protects speakers only from retaliation from the government. Private employers are free to take aim on those whose political viewpoints differ from theirs.

"Political belief is not a protected class of employment, like age, race or sex," said Ed Enoch, an employment attorney with Enoch Rhodes in Augusta.

This means that speaking with co-workers about a candidate's qualities, wearing a T-shirt or button, attending a political rally or even putting a sticker on your car bumper could all constitute terminable offenses.

In most cases, the restrictions on political involvement end at the office. Companies tend to be more concerned about appearing politically neutral to their clients and customers and less concerned with their employees' ideology.

People with highly visible jobs, such as television personalities, or those who work for particular parties or causes often are expected to follow their employer's political rules in their private lives because they represent their employer even when they're not on the job.

"A private employer has the ability to establish a certain atmosphere," said William E. Lee, a professor of media law at the University of Georgia. "In a restaurant, for example, it would be the company's legal right to prevent the wait staff from wearing buttons or insignia promoting a particular candidate."

Still, few employees are made aware of the potential threat talking politics can have.

Mr. Allen, an employment attorney with Nece Allen in Augusta, said he advises companies not to include political speech rules in their employee handbooks because it is rarely an issue. Instead, political speech and propaganda is usually regulated under broader categories, such as dress codes and workplace decorations.

Karen Bloom, an executive recruiter with Chicago-based Bloom, Gross & Associates, said that in her 20 years on the job, political affiliation has never been discussed in the hiring process.

"Most people don't have a clue where their company or the leaders of their company stand on the issues," she said. "It's one of the last things people inquire about."

While it is illegal for employers to force workers to vote a certain way, many companies and business owners don't hesitate to announce their political leanings. Home Depot, Bell South, UPS and Aetna have used their political action committees to raise funds for President Bush's re-election campaign.

Last month in Moulton, Ala., Phil Geddes, the owner of Environmate, an insulation company, sent a memo to his employees explaining why they should support President Bush.

Mr. Geddes then fired one employee who refused to remove a John Kerry-John Edwards sticker from her car.

Mr. Allen said such situations aren't common.

"It's bad for morale," he said. "Employees perceive they have a right to do it."

Reach James Gallagher at (706) 823-3227 or james.gallagher@augustachronicle.com.