First published: November 6th 2023
Last updated: November 6th 2023
In an increasingly polarised world, employers and employees are wrestling with how to manage conflicting political views in the workplace.
The escalation of violence in the Middle East led to the high-profile dismissal of an Irish woman employed by an Israeli software company.
The Dublin woman posted critical views of Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks on her social media page and described Israel as a “terrorist state”.
The dismissal raises questions around the authority of employers to restrict freedom of expression and to terminate an employee’s contract of employment for their political beliefs.
Let’s take a look at how employers can manage this difficult area of HR.
Can employers ban employees from expressing political beliefs?
It’s unlikely that an outright ban would be practical or enforceable. This doesn’t mean employers can’t communicate certain rules for workplace behaviour and this can extend to social media use too.
Some ground rules for employees might be to:
- limit political discussions during work hours
- no displays of political literature, badges, or jokes
- remain civil and respectful when discussing politics
- remain open-minded
- have a zero-tolerance stance on bullying, harassment, or hate speech
It’s best to establish these rules when staff first join the company, so everyone is aware upfront. It might also be useful to send out resources on how to have civil political discussions at work.
To make sure staff are clear on the ground rules, the Employee Handbook should have a policy that outlines:
- the company’s attitude towards political debates
- behaviour that is acceptable and behaviour that isn’t acceptable
- forbidden activities – e.g., demonstrating or creating petitions
- the difference between opinion and hate speech
- the process for staff to report an incident
- the consequences for staff who don’t follow the rules – i.e. disciplinary action or dismissal
Can employers discipline employees at work for expressing political views online?
Employees have a right to express their political opinions but employers also have a right to discipline staff for making statements that may harm their business.
It may be reasonable for an employee to be disciplined or even dismissed for social media posts that they make in their own time and on their own private accounts if it brings the employer’s good name into disrepute. It’s important that employers have clear social media policies in place outlining the circumstances in which disciplinary action may be taken.
This comes as a surprise to many employees who think it is no concern of their employer what they do outside of work on their private social media accounts. The issue of employees publishing political views on social media is further complicated as it involves the issue of freedom of expression.
If employers are concerned that an employee has published political statements that may be harmful to their reputation or their business position, they should not make any kneejerk reactions and remember the employee’s right to free expression which includes their political views.
Employers should have a comprehensive and fair policy clearly setting out the type of social media activity that would be considered employee misconduct and stick to the procedures set out in their disciplinary and grievance policy.
When dismissal is the only option
Employees have strong legal rights under a range of Irish employment laws. The key obligation for employers is to give employees every chance to state their case in response to an allegation that they have breached the terms of their contract.
It is open to employers to summarily dismiss employees who are guilty of gross misconduct but this option applies only to cases of very serious misbehaviour of such a kind that no reasonable employer could continue the relationship for a minute longer.
The lawmakers envisaged scenarios involving serious issues like violent assault or theft when it legislated for summary dismissals. Whether an employer would be entitled to summarily dismiss an employee for expressing political opinions on social media is likely to be arguable rather than a straightforward case of gross misconduct warranting summary dismissal.
Unfair dismissal claims against employers who fail to follow their own procedures
One of the most common reasons for unfair dismissal claims is a failure by the employer to adhere to the rules of their own disciplinary policy.
If you believe an employee has breached their obligations around social media use, ensure that you follow your procedures and apply a disciplinary sanction that is proportionate to the offence.
As discussed above, summary dismissal will only be appropriate for certain cases of gross misconduct.
Another issue for employers to be mindful of in this area is the age profile of their workforce.
Businesses that employ younger workers may need to take more proactive measures in regulating social media use and workplace debate.
Younger people tend to be more idealistic and while they often expect their employer to share their views, it is not always feasible for businesses to take a political stance on hot topic issues for commercial reasons.
It’s particularly important therefore that employees who may be very active on social media are aware of their obligations around acceptable social media use.
Clear social media policy
Business owners are perfectly entitled to regulate political discussion to ensure that their operations run smoothly.
While employees can choose to align themselves with certain political causes, they are less likely to find that all their colleagues will share their views. To avoid disrupting operations, employers should make it clear that political debate should be respectful and conducted outside work hours where possible.
For a small retail business or service provider like a hairdresser, there is little to be gained from encouraging staff to discuss their political views.
Many business owners will prefer to stay neutral on political issues and as long as there are good business reasons for limiting employee’s freedom to express their political views, the policy should stand up to scrutiny should it be challenged by employees.
Expert HR guidance on social media policies
If you need to set boundaries around appropriate workplace political debate and/or appropriate social media use, why not let Peninsula’s Irish employment law experts draft a bespoke policy that works for your business.
And if you need to take disciplinary action against an employee for misconduct, call us today on 1800 719 216 for a free advice call with one of our HR experts.