Political Donations in the Workplace: What's Allowed, What's Not?
This article was updated on September 25, 2018.
Political campaigns cost a fortune. To help out, you or one of your employees might be tempted to ask for political donations in the workplace. This situation must be handled carefully because both employers and employees can encounter potential pitfalls.
Laws for Employees
Generally, private sector employers may limit political discussions in the workplace, according to nonprofit organization Workplace Fairness. This may include asking for political donations. Employers seeking to limit solicitation of political donations should incorporate rules into a workplace policy, and ensure it is applied consistently to all employees. Any policy regarding nonsolicitation of donations should be consistent with other policies regarding solicitation.
Outside of a few states, such as California and New York, there are no legal protections for workers who express political beliefs at work. Some states, though not all, protect workers who participate in legal political activities that take place outside of working hours, such as going to a political rally. If employers choose, they can take action against political discussions that become harassing, contain discriminatory comments, debate religious beliefs or interfere with employee productivity or performance.
Make sure your employees understand that they must obtain permission before they can start asking coworkers for political donations. They should check with managers and/or HR to learn about your workplace rules regarding soliciting. When crafting solicitation policies, consider whether your employees have wildly-differing views. If so, campaigning may start arguments between your employees and hurt productivity.
Laws for Employers
In 2010, the Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee ruling removed limits on how much corporations could contribute to political campaigns. In the case, the Supreme Court reaffirmed earlier rulings indicating that corporations are, for legal purposes, "persons." However, in the Citizens United case they extended this concept, deciding that corporations have a right to free speech. The Supreme Court had already determined that independent political spending is a type of free speech in the 1976 ruling Buckley v. Valeo.
Therefore, the court decided that limiting corporate political spending violated free speech. "Political spending is protected under the First Amendment, meaning corporations and unions could spend unlimited amounts of money on political activities, as long as it was done independently of a party or candidate," notes U.S. News & World Report. Since then, a number of employers have become more actively involved in supporting political causes, with some collecting donations from employees.
If you plan to solicit donations from your employees, participation must be voluntary, even if you think the cause is important for the future of the company. Take into consideration laws that place limits around employer requests for employee support of political organizations or affiliations and other laws that preclude retaliation against employees who fail to support political organizations, viewpoints, etc. It is also illegal to force employees to donate. If you do so, you risk facing a lawsuit from your employees. There are restrictions on what employers may do to raise money for candidates.
Permissible requests for donations should not include any suggestion or implied threat that an employee's future at the company might be impacted. Before you ask for any contributions, consider that other employees may have opposing political views. Just because you are passionate about a particular cause does not mean that your employees feel the same way.
If you still want to collect political donations in the workplace, following these tips may help ensure that you do not cause any unnecessary discomfort to your staff members.