Should your politics outside of work affect your status in the office?
A congressman’s letter that helped push a New Jersey attorney to resign after her boss was told she was a grassroots “ringleader,’’ has sparked questions about how much an employer can clamp down on an employee’s activism.
The Office of Congressional Ethics has been asked to investigate whether U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-New Jersey) interfered with the workplace standing of Saily Avelenda, a former senior vice president at Lakeland Bank, when he called out her political activities in a letter to a member of the bank’s board.
In an era of heightened political tensions, when football players have knelt in protest during the national anthem and many Americans are marching and boycotting for perhaps the first time, the case is showing how politics and the workplace can collide.
“There’s no federal law that broadly protects employees’ political expressions at work,’’ says Emily Martin, general counsel and vice president for workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center. While she says some states offer additional protections, and federal civil servants can’t be discriminated against based on their political beliefs, “private employers have a lot of leeway.’’
Still, in practice, while some employers may put limits on overt political activities in the office like tacking a campaign poster to a cubicle wall, what employees do politically in their private lives is generally off limits, says Edward Yost, of the Society for Human Resource Management.
“If they’re marching on the weekends, on one side or the other, those are their rights to do so,’’ he says.
Avelenda was involved with a local grassroots organization, NJ11th For Change, which since November has been demanding that Frelinghuysen hold an in-person town hall with his constituents, something he has not done since 2013.
In March, the congressman sent a signed fundraising letter to a Lakeland Bank board member, Joseph O’Dowd, noting the opposition that he was facing. He also tacked on a handwritten note that read “P.S. One of the ringleaders works in your bank!’’ Attached was a Politico article quoting Avelenda.
Avelenda was later shown the letter by her boss, who told her that Frelinghuysen was a friend of the bank and that she should not use Lakeland’s name when engaging in her political activities, which she says she had not done. Avelenda eventually…