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This Illinois Human Resources Manual is offered to you for free. Find state specific laws and regulations below.

Politics in the workplace — Illinois

Every election year workplaces experience an increase in political discussion amongst employees. Sometimes those discussions can get heated, especially when co-workers have differing political views and outlooks. Just what should and can an employer do to curb political discussion and activity in the workplace? The purpose of this chapter is to address that issue.

Limiting political expression by employees in the workplace

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution governs free speech rights. These protections of the First Amendment, however, apply only to state action. Therefore, under federal law, private employers have the ability to regulate political discourse in the workplace. While the First Amendment protections apply to public employers and protects public employees’ rights to free speech, even public employers can apply limitations that will ensure efficient operations.

Limiting political activities away from work

Illinois law prohibits employers from maintaining records of an employee's political activities outside of the workplace. Employers are also prohibited from disciplining employees for lawful activities that occur during non-working time. For these reasons, an employer must be very careful when regulating an employee’s off duty conduct.

Preventing political campaigning at work

Non-solicitation policies

Generally, employers can require that employees refrain from activities, such as campaigning or passing out political literature during their work hours, excluding breaks and mealtime. Employers with non-solicitation policies may apply those policies evenly with respect to all areas of solicitation, including selling cookies for a child’s school fundraiser, to soliciting for political purposes. In addition, employers must be mindful of the NLRB’s protection of their employees’ rights to engage in protected concerted activity for their “mutual aid and protection.”

These rules allow employees generally to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment. Because the NLRA protects union-related activities (but not political speech), employers must take great care to distinguish between the two when establishing a non-solicitation policy.

Political dress, including badges and buttons

With respect to the restriction of employees wearing badges, buttons or other political dress, an employer may establish a neutral dress code that prohibits the employee from wearing T-shirts or other types of clothing. However, with respect to badges and buttons, the NLRA allows employees to wear badges or buttons that are related to a union or to unionization as long as doing so does not create a safety hazard or impact another legitimate business purpose. In general, if an employee is wearing a political button that also includes a union message, employers should refrain from prohibiting that activity.

Therefore, when considering a policy to regulate political speech and solicitation, employers should consider the following:

  • Applying a neutrally enforced policy that restricts solicitation only during work hours (not on lunch breaks or rest breaks), employers can refuse to let employees distribute or post political flyers at work (subject to the MCRA).
  • It is a good idea to send out a reminder to employees of company policy in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
  • If an employer prohibits wearing political buttons or posting political posters, the company should be certain that the prohibition is followed absolutely and enforced evenhandedly.
  • Employers can also ban political slogan buttons or T-shirts as part of their dress code policy, particularly for employees who come into contact with clients or customers.
  • Any embargo on buttons may not extend to union buttons worn during a union organization or election, as this is protected under the NLRA, but more about that later.

Use of an employer’s company equipment

Employer company equipment includes items such as bulletin boards, copy machines, telephones and computer systems. While employees enjoy limited rights to solicit and distribute union-related materials on company property, an employee enjoys no such right with respect to use an employer’s equipment for union or other purposes, including political campaigning.

Employers who wish to control the use of their company’s computer systems, including email, must have and regularly enforce an electronic communication policy that warns employees that the computer systems are company property, which regulates the type of discussion that can take place on a computer system. Through an electronics communication policy, an employer can limit the political discourse that takes place on its computer systems. Such policies may not apply to the use of the employer’s e-mail systems for union organizing and for group discussions among employees about the terms and conditions of employment. In a 2014 decision, the NLRB held that such use of employer systems is protected by Section 7 of the NLRA.