Reader 1: I run a small work-at-home business — nonpolitical, nongovernmental, nonreligious — with one independent contractor working with me. I am looking to hire a part-time administrative assistant.
Can I ask prospective hires their opinion of President Trump? I would not abide having someone work for me who is on the wrong side of that issue. Nor would that individual care to work here.
Karla: Interestingly, you don’t specify what you consider “the wrong side of that issue.” So I’m going to try to answer this without making any assumptions.
As I’ve noted before (Oct. 1, 2017), the First Amendment does not govern private-sector employers’ personnel decisions the way it does those of government employers. “As a general rule, in the private sector, one’s political position is not a protected status” under federal anti-discrimination laws, says Jonathan Segal, an employment attorney with Duane Morris in Philadelphia. However, Segal points out, some state and local jurisdictions do protect an employee’s party affiliation or political activity.
Still, even if you’re not in one of those jurisdictions, grilling interviewees on their political views “may be lawful, but it doesn’t mean it’s wise,” says Segal.
No doubt you’ve heard news about businesses and public figures facing boycotts and protests because their goods, words or actions indicated either their support for or opposition to the president. It’s worth thinking through what kind of backlash you could face if a rejected applicant complained in a public forum about failing your political litmus test. As Segal notes, as an owner of a small business, you may be particularly vulnerable to public relations repercussions and their economic impact. (And, to be fair, your decision may have a similar economic impact on individuals hoping to earn a living from you.)
This doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to assess an applicant’s fit with your workplace culture — assuming that “fit” isn’t code for faith, sex or ethnicity. It’s hard to be productive if current events are constantly triggering explosions among colleagues.
But instead of putting candidates on the spot, perhaps you could get the message across with a strategically displayed bumper sticker or other political decor. You might get even better results if, as Segal recommends, you pick your top applicant, lay your own cards on the table and let the candidate make the call: “I should let you know that I am a vocal [supporter/critic] of our current administration, but I know not everyone agrees with me. I’m not asking for your views, but I wanted you to know mine so you can consider this in deciding whether to accept my offer.”
As you note, most people would probably opt out of joining a potentially volatile work environment. Then again, even if the pH of their views doesn’t match yours, they may decide they can make an effort to temper their own reactions and keep the office chemistry neutral.
PRO TIP: In the District of Columbia, the D.C. Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on an employee’s membership in or support for a political party (probably a good thing, in this city).