Workplace protesters have limited legal rights in attempts to steer employer’s business strategies

As political protests spill over to the workplace, more employees are feeling emboldened in their ability to direct a company’s business strategy, including what countries and clients it works with. While Google recently fired workers who disagreed with the company’s  planned contracts in Israel, Deborah Brouwer, managing partner of Detroit-based management-side labor and employment law firm Nemeth Bonnette Brouwer PC, notes that even employers without the global clout of Google can—and should—maintain a safe and respectful workforce by following some key guidelines.

“There’s a very real challenge for employers of all sizes as they work to respond to employee concerns, amid post-pandemic realties like the remote work/return to work tightrope and increasing mental health and work stress issues,” Brouwer said. “The balance for employers is understanding when employees cross a line, such as making company demands based on their personal politics or philosophies or attempting to impose them on co-workers. Employers have significant rights in directing their day-to-day operations and making longer-term strategic goals and investments, and also have significant legal obligations to provide a safe workplace.”

Brouwer says that some workplace unrest caused by world events can be tempered by having key policies in place so that employees know what is and what is not acceptable behavior.

1. Clarify through policy and regular practice that company leaders make decisions about the business to ensure its success, viability and future. While good companies seek and consider employee input, such input must be made through approved channels in a respectful manner.

2. Indicate through policy and training that individual workers or groups of workers seeking to force their political or religious views on their employer or other employees will not be tolerated. Whether through blatant opposition, emails or social media posts, employees must know in advance that violation of such a policy or practice can result in disciplinary action up to and including dismissal. It is worth noting that the EEOC recently announced its position that harassing conduct occurring off-site but in a work-related context (such as conduct on the employer’s email system) can subject an employer to liability. Going even further, the EEOC considers that conduct affecting the conditions of employment, even if outside a work-related context, can be illegal harassment if it impacts the workplace. Non-harassment and non-bullying policies should be clear as to the employer’s expectations.

3. Employers should take steps to prevent discontent. Immediate action should be taken to address disruptive behavior in all its forms—regardless of the channels being used.

4. Employers do have legal obligations to do their best in keeping employees safe. Any incident that presents a concern of physical violence in the workplace should be addressed immediately, either by sending an employee home or contacting the police to deescalate the situation and protect workers.

5. Follow your state laws regarding retaliation to ensure that any actions taken against an employee are not retaliatory to punish their particular views.

“With global unrest not only hitting close to home but coming on strong so close to a presidential election, employers need to act immediately to create and maintain a sense of calm in the workplace,” Brouwer said.  “A business-as-usual approach can help keep the work environment on an even keel.”