Following the events in Charlottesville in which white nationalists clashed with counter-protesters, many people on social media have called upon employers to fire those photographed carrying torches and supporting white nationalist ideals.
This begs the question: Are such firings legal? Is it okay for an employer to terminate an employee based on political opinions expressed outside of the workplace?
The Question Of At-Will Employment
The majority of employment is considered at-will employment. This means that employers can get rid of any employee for any reason at all, provided that reason is not barred by statute. Most employees know that termination is illegal when it involves discrimination based on, for example, race. On the other hand, most believe that discrimination based on political opinions expressed outside of the workplace is legal.
However, the latter is not entirely accurate.
The truth is that it varies from state to state, county to county, and even city to city. According to an article from the Washington Post, there are many places with specific laws that make it illegal to fire a worker because the worker expressed political opinions outside of work or engaged in off-duty activities that the employer did not agree with. In other words, there are places where an employer could be violating the law for firing an employee who, for example, took part in a white nationalist rally.
Employers Should Protect Themselves
Laws like these vary dramatically from one place to the next and, as mentioned, some places have them while other places do not. Employers may be rightfully concerned if an employee is involved in highly publicized political activity that could reflect negatively on the business for which they work. In these times of political unrest, it is wise for employers to review their policies to understand the laws, their rights and their options.