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United or divided: when the views of your company aren’t shared by your employees

You may have been told once before that it is not polite to discuss religion or politics at the dinner table, but what about at work?

The political landscape is somewhat of a mine field with vast political opinions on all matters of social issues and policy, and most likely your opinion won’t necessarily match the person you work next to every day or your employees.

Company executives from Telstra, Qantas, Commonwealth Bank, and ANZ have recently taken more active steps to advocate for equal marriage in Australia. By promoting these views, the companies themselves had been branded in support and effectively labelling their employees too.

Companies that impose a political opinion upon their employees without consideration of their personal political views should tread with caution. Employers should be wary that their company stance may not align with all their employee’s personal opinions or beliefs and if adverse action is taken against them, it is unwarranted.

Social media

In May 2015, SBS broadcaster, Scott McIntyre, was dismissed for his offensive tweets regarding Australian behaviours towards Anzac Day. McIntyre lodged a claim to the Fair Work Commission for Unfair Dismissal after his attempt to sue on the basis that his termination was due to his political opinion. However it was rejected.

McIntrye, whilst expressing his own political views, he did it on an open forum and was acting under the brand of SBS which breached a number of SBS social media protocols.   

Personal social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter are often used to display personal opinions on a diverse range of matters. Over time there has been a blurring line on what is private and public in this space.

If an employee uses an online platform to express their concerns regarding work related matters, in protest of a company’s view, or just expressing their opinion, the employer must consider if discipline is an appropriate way to address the issue.  They must also consider if the reason for discipline is because the employee put the company’s reputation in disrepute or if they are in breach of a social media policy.

Protections for the employee

The Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), under section 351, and the Victoria Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission outlines that it is against the law to take adverse action against anyone in the workplace because of their political beliefs or activities, assumed or actual.

If an employee feels they have been discriminated against because they voiced their political opinion they may seek to bring a General Protections claim through the Fair Work Commission.

In addition to protecting an employee against adverse action for expressing their political beliefs, a General Protections claim also protects people if adverse action has been take against a person’s race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental disability, marital status, family or carer’s responsibilities, pregnancy, religion, national extraction or social origin.

Questions for the employer to consider

If your company is taking an open stance on an issue to align itself politically, it is important to reflect the effects it may have. For the employer, HR department, or executive, question:

  1. What are the pros and cons of actively taking a stance?
  2. How will this affect your employees, customers, stakeholders, and board?
  3. Do your employees, customers, stakeholders, board share the same view?
  4. Will you treat employees differently if their view is different?
  5. Are you advocating for the right reason or to align yourself politically?
When can an employer discriminate?

Under the Equal Opportunities Act 2010 there are few general exceptions to the rule whereby the personal political beliefs of the applicant or employee can be a deciding factor of whether they are fit for the role.

These include but are not limited to political advisers for a government minister role or working for a political party, electorate office or any similar employment.

If an employer is unsure about their rights, it is advised they seek legal advice.

About the author

Trent Hancock is a Senior Associate with McDonald Murholme, an employment law firm based in Melbourne and Adelaide. He previously wrote Uber flashes headlights on employment laws, Deutsche Bank bonus cuts: lessons for SMEs and Are your employees working overtime during the EOFY rush? If so, you must tread carefully for Dynamic Business. 

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Trent Hancock

Trent Hancock

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