Q: One of my direct reports has been posting political opinions on social media under a pseudonym. While every citizen has a right to his or her convictions, making these views public might compromise our company’s officially neutral position on politics. Furthermore, I question this employee’s judgment, since he knows he’s putting the firm in a difficult position. However, I think it’s undemocratic to stifle dissent, even in the office. What can I do about this?
A: This question requires you to decide which side of the ethical line to stand on in several ways: political activism in the workplace, the ability of employees to speak for themselves rather than for their employer, and, more broadly, where the duty owed to an employer ends and a person’s right to express a controversial opinion begins.
Let’s assume you’re certain that the social media account you’re referring to unequivocally belongs to your employee. You definitely don’t want to accuse someone of posting without proof of the person’s identity.
This behaviour only becomes a problem if there’s a clear link between the employee and the company in the social media posts, said Peter Cappelli, the George W Taylor Professor of Management and the director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, in Philadelphia.
“If the employee is bringing the company into the postings in some way, then the company has a legitimate interest in getting the individual to stop — at least getting the association with the company out of any postings — including dismissing the employee if necessary,” said Cappelli, in an email. You’re even more justified, he said, if the employee is using company time and resources to make these posts.
It’s worth having a discussion with the employee. State up front that it’s not your business, or the company’s, to police employees’ private thoughts or votes. When personal opinions get in the way of company business, however, there’s an issue.
Then suggest that the employee stick to in-person advocacy rather than online social media, and reiterate that, regardless of the venue, the company must not be mentioned or referenced in any way, explicitly or implicitly. Note also if your company policy prohibits such activities on the clock and on company-owned equipment, like a laptop or cell phone.
If the employee refuses to stop, you may have grounds for termination. Before taking any action, however, check with your firm’s attorneys. Laws and regulations differ by region, and you may or may not be allowed to prevent your employee from making these postings. In California, for instance, state law limits what employers can require in terms of employee behaviour, Capelli said. You may have even less leeway if your employee was making these statements on private time.
“If an employer wants to prevent an employee from making public pronouncements that do not engage the company in any way and are not made on company time or using company resources, they may run afoul of these laws,” he said.
Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at email@example.com.
This article was written by Chana R Schoenberger from BBC and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.