Occasionally, political affiliations, issues and views can be so intense that they create division and extreme disagreement. California’s politically charged environment can spillover into the workplace and cause problems. It’s called political discrimination and when it happens, sometimes employees are terminated, retaliated against and generally punished for their political views or actions. In California, this is illegal.

A good example of a hotly contested political issue that divided people and resulted in some hostile work environments is California’s Proposition 8. Proposition 8 was a statewide ballot proposition in California that eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry. Before it passed, same-sex marriage was a constitutionally protected right in California—a majority of the justices of the California Supreme Court affirmed this understanding of the California Constitution in May 2008.

On November 4, 2008, voters approved the measure and made same-sex marriage illegal in California. In 2010, a federal judge ruled that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional under the U.S. Constitution and barred its enforcement. Proposition 8, before it was declared null and void by the federal courts, created a new amendment to the California Constitution, which said, “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

The campaign over Proposition 8 was fiercely contested in California. In the aftermath of the vote, an intense focus on Proposition 8 continued with protests around the country and litigation focusing on many aspects of the initiative.

Whatever someone’s political views or affiliations it should not effect their employment. Fortunately, a California employee is protected from political discrimination and retaliation by his or her employer for outside political activities and views.

Private Employees

The California legislature has made it clear that an employer is prohibited from acting against an employee in retaliation for that employee’s outside political activity. California Labor Codes prevent private sector employers from controlling an employee’s political activities outside of work. Private employers are prohibited from acts of political discrimination. Specifically, they are prohibited from making, adopting, or enforcing any rule, regulation, or policy that forbids or restricts employees from participating in politics or becoming candidates for public office. Private employers cannot coerce or influence an employee’s political activity by threatening discharge or loss of employment. The Legislature enacted these statutes to protect an employee’s fundamental right to engage in political activity outside of work, without interference by private employers.

Government Employees

Public sector employees also have the right to engage in political activates outside of the workplace, without fear of termination or retaliation. California’s Governments Code sections protect government employees from retaliation for engaging in political activities.

Political Discrimination: A public officer or employee may not:

  • Use the authority or influence of his or her official position to persuade or induce any officer or employee to take or refrain from taking any type of political action.
  • Promise to provide any person with a gift, money, promotion, job, or other form of compensation in return for a contribution or vote.
  • Threaten to take any action against any person in order to secure a contribution or vote.

A public officer or employee may vote for any candidate of his or her choice, even if voting against a current incumbent. They may also vote against a ballot measure even if it is officially supported by the public agency.

Protection for public sector employees’ speech also falls under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and the California Constitution. There are some limitations to a public employee’s freedom of speech rights. The First Amendment does not permit public sector employees to make discriminatory or harassing statements that would violate civil rights laws, such as California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) or the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII).

If you feel that you have suffered negative consequences at work due to some form of political activity that you’ve been engaged in you need to talk to an attorney that is knowledgeable about worker’s rights and employment law. We can help you—Initial consultations and evaluations for employment related violations are confidential and free, so there is no cost to you to find out if you have a valid concern and are entitled to compensation.