With the next presidential election less than a year away, politics are inevitably in the air at the workplace, and this may be causing some tension. Employees might be talking, sometimes arguing, and sometimes participating in one campaign or another.
Venable, a law firm with a large nonprofit practice, offers some valuable information regarding what nonprofits may be required to do—or are prohibited from doing—about their employees’ desire to participate in the electoral process. If you believe the First Amendment protects political speech in the workplace, please read on. That is not the case.
Employees and Political Activity
501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofits are mandated to prohibit employees from using the nonprofit’s time and resources to support or oppose a candidate. This includes but may not be limited to:
- Making campaign flyers on the office copier
- Using the organization’s member or donor lists to pinpoint potential campaign donors
- Involving work-issued telephone numbers, email addresses, office addresses, or your organization’s name when communicating with candidates or otherwise participating in a political campaign
(501(c)(4), (5), and (6) tax-exempt nonprofits are permitted, but not required, to restrict these activities).
In some states, political activity relating to elections, an employee using your nonprofit’s resources, such as conference rooms, member or donor lists, or overnight delivery services, must promptly pay the organization for the use of such resources, or the organization may be charged with making an illegal, in-kind contribution.
You may ban campaign paraphernalia as a part of a neutral dress code. You also may tell employees not to post campaign signs in their cubicle or on their desk, or tell them to remove a campaign sign from their workspace. But you can not discipline an employee for wearing a candidate’s name button.
You may prohibit employees from engaging in conversations regarding controversial topics in the workplace during work hours, including political discussions. But be careful not to restrict political speech that might relate to labor or working conditions. Also, be sure discussions do not turn into conversations about legally protected characteristics (age, gender, religion, etc.)
Some states regulate the ability of elected officials to sit on or receive compensation from a corporate board. In addition, some states prohibit the use of public resources and confidential information to benefit a business with which the individual is associated.
Policies prohibiting political activity will likely be viewed more favorably if the policy captures political activity along with more neutral activities—for example, a dress code that prohibits all t-shirts will also prohibit political t-shirts.
Do you have a policy regarding employee political activity? Once a policy is in place, review it with an attorney to ensure compliance with current laws, including applicable laws in your state; and train managers about what is permitted and how to enforce it.
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