Question: One of our employees wore a t-shirt in support of a political cause yesterday. Today another employee arrived at work wearing a mask with messaging in favor of her political party. I sense a slippery slope here. Do we have to allow this?
Answer: No. Employees don’t have First Amendment rights in the private workplace. As an employer, you have discretion to prohibit political speech on clothing, so long as your policy is uniformly applied and consistently enforced. You should decide to what extent you’re going to police messages on workers’ clothing. The simplest approach may be an all-or-nothing stance, much like your non-solicitation policy. You can bet that with the upcoming presidential election, some employees will want to show their support for one party or another. You may also have employees who wear t-shirts or hats expressing opinions on other issues, with statements such as Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter. You likely have employees who feel differently about what those messages mean. By allowing these messages in the workplace, you may be inviting conflict, which takes the focus away from the job at hand.
Every company should work to create a culture of inclusion and diversity. At the same time, you have a duty to prevent illegal discrimination and harassment. If you anticipate workplace conflict over political clothing and insignia, we recommend getting ahead of this issue by establishing a clear policy on political speech in the workplace and explaining your reasoning behind it. Explain that you intend to foster and maintain a work environment that is a safe, inclusive place for all employees. Let them know you respect their right to participate in the political process on their own time, but political speech at work can detract from productivity. The goal of your policy is to allow employees to focus on their job duties and work together as a unified team. Review our Legal Guide, Dress Codes, for guidance.
One final note: Compassion goes a long way. Employees may feel marginalized or angry about events in their personal lives or the world around them. You can’t control that, but you can control your work environment. Does each employee really feel like they belong to your team, especially those who are outnumbered by those who are different from them (race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc.)? Ensuring each employee feels valued and respected isn’t just a legal compliance issue; it results in improved productivity and is better for the bottom line. Your management team and front line supervisors need to be full partners in this effort. Contact your Vigilant Law Group employment attorney if you have questions about implementing your dress code policy or addressing any other workplace concerns.