Can You Be Fired for Being Conservative?
As the world becomes ever more polarised along the political party lines, has politics permeated the workplace to such a degree that if your views oppose your employers you could find yourself ostracised, discriminated against, or even out of a job?
Politics. The mere sound of the word can cause problems prior to even delving into the topics at hand, yet, it is what most nations are built on. You can choose to ignore the topic, claim your views are independent from the left and right wing, but you will fall somewhere on the spectrum. And in the age of social media where hard line opinions are freely expressed largely without recrimination it’s likely that wherever you land, there is someone on the opposing end waiting to jump at you.
Nonetheless in the developed world, we stand strong on the notion that we have a right to freedom of speech, but are we shackled to a post that will only let us stretch so far?
But could that freedom of speech cause more issues in the modern age, and in the workplace?
To kickstart 2018 the right way, James Damore, former employee at Google, filed a lawsuit to sue his old workplace for firing him for being ‘intolerant of white male conservatives’. This was followed from the leaked memo where Damore stated that women are more ‘neurotic’ and argued that psychological gender differences could explain why 80% of Google’s engineers, and most of the company’s leaders, are men. A viewpoint that has received some support is from controversial psychologist Jordan B Peterson.
A small snippet of the memo, to spark some thought: “I’m simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership”, wrote Damore.
Google waved goodbye to Damore on the basis that he was advancing ‘harmful gender stereotypes in the workplace’ and following being adopted by right-wing media as a victim of Silicon Valley’s liberal bias, Damore retaliated on the basis that white, male conservative employees at Google are ‘ostracized, belittled, and punished’. So, was Google right in firing Damore, should he have kept his controversial opinion to himself, and are we entering a new era where politics can result in dismissals?
Was Damore discriminated against?
An integral aspect of UK labour law is that it is unlawful to discriminate against a person based on their age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation. It does not mention freedom of speech, however, The Human Rights Act (HRA) specifies that individuals should have the right to freedom of expression, but there are limitations.
The Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations also provide protection for individuals against any unfair treatment or abuse due to their “religion, religious belief or similar philosophical belief”.
Interestingly, during test cases, the aforementioned legislations were not enough to cover extreme right-wing views.
Hannah Cottam, Group Director of recruitment firm Sellick Partnership enlightens us: “Companies must ensure they are not standing in the way of free speech amongst their employees. Not only does it display that they have an opinion on important matters, but it also shows they have a strong character and are not afraid to speak up, which is important for me when looking for candidates that are the right culture fit.
“I would however stress to all candidates that they need to be careful, and advise against airing any extreme viewpoints on open platforms that may go against the values and morals of their place of work.”
Freedom of speech
So, aside from perceived sexism, generalising and stereotyping the sexes, Damore didn’t really do anything that wrong to get him fired; he has the right to freedom of speech.
It is a similar situation for those in the US, too. In the US The First Amendment (Amendment I) is often associated with freedom of speech, but ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech… or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.’, does not extend to speech protections in the workplace; it addresses actions by the government to impede speech and does not relate to the private sector.
Federal laws prevent employers from firing employees for the same reasons as the UK Labour law, and again, does not imply any protection for political viewpoints; however, there are a few states that make it illegal to discriminate an employee based on their political activity, unless it interferes with company values and the functions of its business.
Unpopular opinions can cause rage, but it also provokes thought. How any society tolerates disfavoured notions reflects where we are at in progressing forward, and by firing him, Google are acknowledging that women are just as capable as men, and staying true to their values…or did Google buckle under the pressure that Damore expressed arguably sexist views, so out of fear of public retaliation, they chose to fire him and avoid a negative backlash on their business? We could go back and forth and debate on this all day long, but what we really want to know more about is who has the stronger leg to stand on? Legally, by only slightly delving into this issue, it does seems like Damore’s is far weaker.
“Employers must be very careful when using the personal viewpoints of employees as grounds for dismissal, and ensure that whatever they uphold are in line with their company values. Whatever these values may be, it is important for companies to uphold their policies across the board and stay true to these morals.”, explains Hannah.
Which they did, as the CEO Sundar Pichai stated, without an ounce of regret, that their decision to fire Damore was not based on his political view: “I regret that people misunderstand that we may have made this [decision] for a political position one way or another,” Pichai said in an interview.
According to Pichai, Damore was fired because his memo violated Google’s code of conduct, and that it was “not okay” to “advance harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”.
As Hannah stated: “Only when these values and morals are put in jeopardy can a company investigate and take action, however action should only be taken if the company feels their reputation or employer brand is at stake. Companies should set out a clear set of values, and a code of conduct championed by the Senior Management Team that is readily available to all current and prospective candidates that details what is and is not appropriate. This should be enforced across the organisation, and any instances where the origination feels these have not been met should be formally investigated.”
Damore will argue that Google has violated Californian law, by singling out, mistreating and terminating employees that expressed views deviating from the majority view.
Nonetheless, the lawsuit has been filled for by Dhillon Law Group, who aims to represent: “all employees of Google discriminated against (i) due to their perceived conservative political views” in the last four years, “due to their male gender” and/or “due to their Caucasian race” in the last year”.
It is an interesting case for us to keep our eyes on, but what is certain is that there is now a chance you could get fired for your strong political views. If you would like to keep your job, perhaps keeping strong, ‘controversial’ (sexist, racist, or anything demeaning and derogatory) opinions to yourself in the workplace, is the smarter way to go, because legally you are unlikely to succeed in convincing the courts that being a conservative cost you your job.