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Should we be allowed to express our political views at work?

Readers may have watched the extraordinary spectacle of the Trump-Biden debate and the more civilised and issues-focused debates between Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins.

personal views at workUnited States President Donald Trump no doubt engages people’s emotions. So do all leaders’ debates. They also encourage political reflection and often compel us to express our political views.

Employees are often pressured by their employer to exercise neutrality or restraint when it comes to expressing political views. In the United States we have Amazon monitoring employees’ emails. An email address affiliated with the HR department joined 78 mailing lists, the majority of which related to minority employees and activism issues, including the union organising of warehouse workers. This comes after Amazon earlier this year fired an employee who had been organising his warehousing colleagues for safer working conditions during the pandemic. Amazon also sacked several corporate employees who organised to support the warehouse workers.

These dismissals and the email monitoring had a chilling effect on the workforce, we are told. Furthermore, Amazon advertised for an employee to “analyse labour organising threats against the company”.

Amazon said that it subscribed to the mailing lists to monitor employee feedback on company culture.

In New Zealand, employees of central and local government are expected to be politically neutral, particularly around election time. Public Service Commission guidelines make clear that public servants have the same rights of political expression outside the workplace as ordinary members of the public. They must, however, be apolitical in the way they carry out their work. Like any other employees, they should not act in such a way that would bring their employers into disrepute.

We are told public servants are free to use social media in their private lives in the same way as other citizens. However, there must be a clear separation between a public servant’s work role and their personal use of social media. This is to ensure their social media communications do not undermine the political neutrality of the public services.

Employees of local Councils have in the past got into hot water for expressing views about council policy publicly, including at meetings and to the media. One employee who worked for the then North Shore City Council wrote letters to the newspaper critical of Council managers, despite receiving a warning to desist.

He was dismissed for disloyalty and insubordination. He won his case because, in the main, he wrote letters as a ratepayer rather than as an employee. Internal methods of resolving disputes were ill-defined and seldom used. He was reinstated to his job as a sewer patrol person. Perhaps, like me, you think he was a little bit lucky!

In another case, a woman employed by the Whangarei District Council was dismissed as personal assistant to the Mayor and Chief Executive. She signed the nomination form for another person standing for Mayor in the local body elections. She had obligations of political neutrality and breached Council guidelines.

The Chief Executive said her conduct had the potential to damage the Council’s reputation and her ability to operate as an impartial administrator. The Chief Executive dismissed her for serious misconduct.

The Employment Relations Authority considered the conduct in question to be more in the nature of misconduct than serious misconduct justifying dismissal. The employee in question had not read Council protocols on remaining politically neutral which appeared to have been breached.

There were other problems. The policy relating to political neutrality contained a provision which allowed the Chief Executive to give an employee permission to campaign for a candidate. That had happened in the election in question. The protocols themselves were inconsistent.

The key point was that the behaviour was more in the nature of negligence than a deliberate decision to defy council policy of which she was, in this case, unaware. She was not reinstated but got a significant financial payment for lost wages and distress.

It is important to remember that section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 provides for freedom of speech, subject to reasonable limits prescribed by law.

Expressing strong political views that can be linked to employment is dangerous for any employee. At the very least it is likely to risk damaging the relationship with the employer. It may bring the employer into disrepute and, depending upon what is said, the comments may be destructive of the employment relationship.

We are all tempted to express strong political views because of the impact upon us of leaders such as President Trump. Some readers may say that his conduct brings the institution he serves into disrepute. The sanction is to vote for somebody else. In the case of employees, the sanction where the employer is drawn in might be their dismissal.

The moral of the story is that you are entitled to your political views but do not link them to your employer. They are your views, not your employers. You may be putting your employment in jeopardy if you do not keep a clear boundary.