A recent press conference by Donald Trump offers an example of why employers need to be careful about discussing or promoting politics in the workplace.
Specifically, on October 25, 2016, Donald Trump was giving a press conference at his Doral National Golf Club in Florida (to be honest, I’m not sure if he was promoting his presidency or the club). The backdrop for this event consisted of club employees standing behind Mr. Trump. The point he was trying to make was that he is a jobs creator and will do the same as President.
At one point during the event, Mr. Trump – in what he described as and unrehearsed move – asked his employees to step forward to talk about working for him (about the 2:30-minute mark), “Anybody would like to say a few words about working for Trump? Come on up.”
After several requests, an employee finally came forward. In response, Mr. Trump said, “Better say good, or I’ll say you’re fired.” While Mr. Trump’s “you’re fired” schtick worked well for him on his reality TV show, it is problematic when used in the context of politics and employment.
Political Coercion of Workers
Consider for example that under Michigan law, Mr. Trump’s statement could give rise to a misdemeanor. Under MCL 168.931, a person cannot “either directly or indirectly, discharge or threaten to discharge an employee of the person for the purpose of influencing the employee’s vote at an election.” While not in the employment context, it is worth noting that this statute has been applied to convict a defendant who paid $5 to get people to vote in a recall election. People v. Pinkney (Mich. Ct. App. July 14, 2009).
Further, employers may come under the scrutiny of the Federal Election Commission if political proselytizing becomes employee coercion with respect to political activity and campaign contributions. In this regard, a complaint was filed against a coal company for the actions of its executive concerning violations of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971. That complaint alleged as follows:
Robert Murray personally threatened employees by letter and in company meetings with termination if the employees failed to contribute to the company’s political action committee. Murray Energy employees have stated that they felt under constant pressure to make contributions and that their jobs were at stake if they did not make the contributions Robert Murray expected them to.
And even if not a criminal violation, interjecting politics into the workplace often creates conflict among co-workers. Consider the Wall Street Journal, by Rachel Feintzeig and John Simons, recently reported on the rise of workplace problems involving political polarization:
There was no mincing words. ‘You either let her go, or I go,’ a senior executive at FrescoData told the company’s human-resources manager earlier this month. The executive supports Republican Donald Trump for president. The co-worker he says he can no longer work with has made no secret of her plan to vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton.
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The divisiveness of this year’s presidential campaign has seeped into American workplaces, raising tensions among co-workers and forcing bosses to mediate disputes.
Hopefully, as we move farther away from November 8, the distraction created by this year’s politics will subside. Until then, there is a reason politics is considered one of three workplace taboos that shouldn’t be discussed. But if politics are going to be discussed, a great attorney and better friend, Ellisen Turner, put it this way, “I have many friends, with at least as many views. I enjoy knowing you because of our differences, not despite them.” A great piece of advice for anyone.
For more information about complying with federal or Michigan employment laws, as well as investigating employee misconduct, contact employment attorney Jason Shinn.