Can You Get Fired for Protesting at Work? 7 Things to Know

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Haley Baird Riemer57
April 18, 2024 at 7:48AM UTC
Protest is a powerful tool. Taking a stand against policies and practices that are unjust or against your values is one way you can contribute to activism in your personal sphere. When it comes to your workplace, though, protesting could cost you your job, and the question of when and how to do it becomes essential. While our free speech is protected under the constitution, it can still affect your career. It's far from unheard of for employers to fire employees for taking a political stand, even outside of their place of work. 
If you're considering joining a protest, hosting an action or even expressing your personal political opinions on the internet, keep in mind the laws that are on your side and those that aren't. 
Here are some tips and things to look out for in common situations you should be aware of. 

The laws:

To keep employees from taking unfair action against employees whose views they disagree with, there are some legal parameters that protect workers' rights to assembly and free speech. However, there are also laws that can allow employers to take action against workers and fire people for "violating company policy" under a variety of circumstances. Employment laws vary by state, and it's important to be aware of yours, so that if/when you decide to protest, you do it in a way that keeps your best interests in mind. 

If you're an at-will employee.

At-will workers are governed by policies that may prevent them from speaking out freely about certain issues. These policies, included in the employee handbook, prevent employees from speaking out in any way that might damage the company's brand or reputation. Basically, they allow the company to terminate an employee for little reason other than disagreement with their views by citing a violation of "company policy." At-will employees have less lee-way when it comes to protesting, and if you're not sure if this applies to you, don't hesitate to contact your company's management and find out.

If you're not at work.

If you're outside of the office, things can get tricky. The at-will employment laws typically do allow employers to take action against employees that are protesting, but depending on the kind of case your employer makes on a clause like how employees represent the company outside of the workplace, a case could be made for termination for off-the-clock protesting. Again, having a clear idea of what is in the employee handbook will be helpful in avoiding these thin lines and not taking risks with unexpected consequences. For some, the option of notifying their boss beforehand about political action is a feasible one. If this applies to you, then taking that extra measure of precaution is advisable.

If you're online.

In a time where social media and political activism are both so prominent within our culture, the statements you make online or the movements you support can have as much or more weight than the events for which you're present physically. Because social media has a wider reach and a longer shelf life than one-time events or protests, it is not uncommon for companies to have  social media policies for their employees. These may include specific verbatim "don'ts" that govern social media presence, from political statements, to endorsements, to specific language. 
Legally, it is easier to enforce social media restrictions, as the content is more easily traced and evidence of a violation is clearer, so these restrictions are common. 

If you're protesting your own company.

There are federal protections in place that provide safety to employees if they protest or question certain employer policies or treatments, which limit the employer responses to these in terms of sanctions or measures to halt these activities. Generally, all employees have the right to strike, picket or protest a company, whether they are in a union or not.
There are exceptions to these federal protections, though. The key difference lies on whether employees are pushing for better working conditions or protesting questionable in-company policies or if they're engaging in more ambiguous political activism that in turn is jeopardizing the company's business. If the latter occurs, employers have the liberty to terminate employees for these protests.

Examples in the news.

Although (or rather because) social media has the power to affect careers and companies at the business level, certain prominent figures on social media choose to take bold stances on their platforms to incite larger engagement and awareness to those they interact with on these platforms. In the times of Trump, this has become more prominent, and you can surely think of at least one individual who has been outspoken on social media about the current political climate of the country. However, these personal acts of protest have been occurring long before Trump, and have set precedent with how companies or organizations deal with the aftermath in terms of terminating employment or not.

Kneeling during the national anthem.

This month is the fifth anniversary of the murder of Michael Brown by Ferguson police, a tragedy known to have sparked a collective outrage and subsequent political activism against police brutality all over the country. Colin Kaepernick is among a number of famous athletes and celebrities who actively and publicly protested excessive use of police force, and his particular contribution to the movement was to start kneeling during the National Anthem at NFL games. 
Formerly a San Francisco 49ers player, Colin Kaepernick eventually found himself unsigned after the season when he first started kneeling. He filed a grievance against the NFL, accusing teams of intentionally keeping him out of a job because of his acts of protest against white supremacy and police brutality. Though the grievance was settled, the terms are not known, and Kaepernick remains unemployed as an NFL player. This was perhaps the most public recent example of an employee essentially losing their personal political stances and opinions.  
Because there was financial and social aftermath to his activism, his team had grounds to not re-sign him for another season, and other teams felt discouraged from signing him on to their teams as well, mostly out of fear of backlash from the president. The NFL has also since changed its policies to articulate that players are not allowed to kneel during the anthem. However, players continue to kneel in protest, and the action has spread to other teams and other sports as well, with U.S. Women's Soccer star Megan Rapinoe among the first athletes to follow Kaepernick's lead. 

Wayfair employees protest selling to ICE detention centers.

In late June of this year, Wayfair employees staged a walk-out to protest the company's decision to sell furniture to an ICE detention facility on the U.S.-Mexico border. The protest came after a signed petition was rejected by the company's CEO, urging them not to sell bedroom furniture to detention facilities, which were being prepared to detain migrant children in what has been revealed as unhygienic and inhumane conditions. 
This is an example of protest in the workplace on the grounds of unethical action on the part of the company, showing solidarity with a group of people and a political issue outside. Though this kind of protest is not always covered in employees' right to strike, there was no retaliation on the part of Wayfair, besides their decision to ignore employees' demands. 

The woman who flipped off Trump's motorcade.

In the fall of 2017, Juli Briskman was biking down the road in Virginia when she saw a procession of Trump's vehicles and proceeded to flip them off in passing. A photographer caught the moment, and the picture went viral; Juli was subsequently fired from her job at a government contracting agency for the incident. She retaliated and took the company to court, and though she did not get her job back, she decided a career change was in order anyway and decided to run for public office in 2018.
Her story set a precedent for protesting as an employee in this particular political climate and sparked questions about what lines employment laws draw for employees and employers in this type of situation.

How to protest at work and keep your job.

In order to protest without jeopardizing your career or your finances, take necessary precautions to make sure you're protected. 

1. Know your company's policy.

As it was mentioned before, having a clear grip of what the employee handbook of your workplace says is a good place to start if you want to ensure you have no professional repercussions when you engage in political activism or other sorts of protest. Talk to your manager, boss, or HR person and make sure you get in writing what your company's policies are for social engagement. Consider seeking out employers whose missions and policies align with your own morals and political views, to minimize the chances your actions will clash.

2. If possible, alert your boss.

Sometimes the shock factor of protest is what unsettles employers. They can argue you are unreliable and prone to unpredictability, which can hurt your job. To avoid going down this path, the best thing is to notify your superiors of the protests or events you will be attending or become associated with, and ensure there is no rule you're breaking or policy you're violating instead of unknowingly breaking it. 

3. Be smart on social media.

Since social media is the trickiest aspect of protest and expressing political viewpoints, perhaps your safest bet is to have private accounts where you can express yourself freely without risking losing your job. No work friends reading your stuff means no risk of it ever getting back to your employer. However, if you feel like this is a form of censorship, or simply don't feel like having more than one account to worry about, you can always add a disclaimer in your profile to avoid legal repercussions by your employer like, "opinions are my own and do not reflect the views of my company."
None of us want to censor our political views or make them palatable by standards that may be glossing over important issues. However, you have to find a balance between being true to your personal views and issues you care about making a change on, and job and life security. If you don't have or can't find a job that is already engaged in the kind of activism you want to be doing, where protesting might go over better, use this guide as a place to start in order to cover your bases. As long as you know what to expect and what the risks are, you can prepare as best as possible and exercise your right to free speech while keeping your job.

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