Last week, software company Basecamp’s CEO Jason Fried anounced in a blog post that employees would no longer be allowed to openly share their “societal and political discussions” at work. “Every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant,” Fried wrote. “You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or wading into it means you’re a target.” Coinbase, a cryptocurrency company, issued a similar edict last year, but the internal reaction to Fried’s announcement was a rebellion. Basecamp employs around 60 people, and about a third of the them have accepted buyouts to leave in an apparent protest against the new policy.
There are few legal limits on employers regulating political speech in the workplace. First Amendment rights do not apply to private sector employers. Any speech ban has to clearly state that the policy will not apply to discussions relating to terms and conditions of employment protected under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. An employer must also consistently enforce the policy lest selective enforcement suggest discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or other protected classifications.
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Is such a ban ethical?
I’m not sure it is, any more than demanding employees not discuss sports, family, metallurgy or ethics. I’d quit such a company, and I never discussed politics on the job (except when I worked at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where politics was part of the job.) Employers have an opportunity to try to change the problem Fried described, and shutting down speech isn’t the ethical way to do it. I find dictating no politics in the workplace is as odious as declaring mandatory political points of view. Insist on civility, respect, and controlled emotions: absolutely. Ban abuses of power, like attempted indoctrination, intimidation or bullying. Free speech, however, is essential to building relationships, and political discourse is the life’s blood of a democracy.
Interestingly, libertarian Reason endorses such workplace bans. I think the magazine’s take is wrong.
I am, however, open to be persuaded otherwise.