Some of those participating at what has been described as an “alt-right” rally-turned violent in Charlottesville, Va., this weekend returned to their day jobs on Monday to find they were no longer employed.
Decrying participants in the rally as white supremacists or neo-Nazis, many members of the public used social media to identify those photographed at the rally and ensuing violence and deluged their employers with calls for the participants’ dismissal. Those complaints led to several firings.
A few of those who lost their jobs took to the media claiming they were not in fact members of any white supremacist organization and were simply conservative-leaning and at the rally with nonviolent intent and no racial agenda.
So if that is true, did their employers have the right to fire them?
Even if they were there to support an extremist agenda, would their “free speech” expression of those views be grounds for firing?
What if they were on the opposite side and fired? Is that OK?
According to Loren Speziale, an attorney specializing in employment law for Gross McGinley LLP in Allentown, the answer to all those questions is yes – especially if you work in Pennsylvania.
The fact is, she said, if you work for a privately held company – versus a government entity – you have no rights protecting your free speech.
If you publicly participate in a controversial event or even post controversial views on social media that go against its image, a company is well within its rights to terminate your employment. And your boss doesn’t even have to tell you why.
“Pennsylvania is an at-will employment state,” Speziale explained. “You have very limited protection unless you’re in an anti-discrimination protected class.”
And even then, she said, an employer in a free-will employment state can let a person go at any time for any reason just because it wants to.
That, of course, doesn’t happen very often. An employer would have a hard time finding good, loyal employees if it had a reputation for firing staff members willy-nilly.
So how do you know if you’re safe from getting the boot the next time you go on a slightly off color, angry political rant on Facebook? (I’m my company’s social media coordinator. I’m on there a lot. I know a lot of you are guilty of a rant or two.)
Speziale said there are circumstances where people have more protection to speak their mind without repercussion.
“People working in the public sector – government – won’t be fired for public views,” she said.
That doesn’t mean a governmental agency can’t place some restrictions on the public behavior of staff, just not to the same extent a private sector company can.
Union contracts can also contain provisions that allow for members to participate in protests or other politically charged gatherings or events.
For everyone else, Speziale said, a little research can help an employee know how much leeway they have to publicly protest.
She said most employee manuals should have language explaining what is and what is not acceptable as far as expressing public opinions. Most discourage employees from engaging in activity or speech that would paint the company in a bad light, especially if they’re in a forward-facing position where they could be seen as the “face” of the business.
Speziale said if publicly displaying strong or potentially controversial ideology, it’s best to first know what your employer’s tolerance is for the issue at hand and the public image of its employees.
If you publicly embarrass your boss, you might just be out of a job.