Howard Levitt: No, you don’t have the right to express your political opinions at work

By October 20, 2021 No Comments

Howard Levitt and Maxwell Radway: The advent of vaccine passports have created further rifts in the workplace

Vaccine mandates are creating divides, separating people who can fully participate in society, and spilling over into the office.

Returning to work after the more customary Thanksgiving weekend of the past, many will have shared holiday dinners with relatives holding different social, political and pandemic-related opinions.

While it is trite to note that politics does not make for polite discussion, the pandemic has pushed intellectual and ideological divide to the forefront of the public spotlight, particularly in relation to public health directives and restrictions, with those issues fodder for daily discussions between friends, family, social media, and, to the point, inside workplaces.

Alongside public health conversations, we have also experienced many other divisive social and political events, including recent elections in both the United States and Canada, as well as various highly publicized social movements and protests. With such significant current events occurring in an environment of pandemic-related fear and uncertainty, values-based conflict has been exacerbated. The consequences are sometimes pronounced.

Social, political, and identity-based conflicts are obviously detrimental to the orderly and productive operation of a workplace. Contrary to popular belief, employees have no legal entitlement to express their personal opinions at work. Yet, employees are increasingly vocal in expressing opinions about how their employer should be addressing social and public health-related issues. Many employees have refused to be vaccinated or heed other public health precautions, such as physical distancing and mask-wearing, leading to fierce arguments and occasionally even physical conflicts between coworkers. Such disputes are deleterious to productivity as are other, increasingly common, social and political workplace disagreements.

It is common now for coworkers to accuse each other of being irresponsible for conducting what were once trivial diversions, such as attending a restaurant or flying out of the country for family vacations. Most recently, the advent of “vaccine passports” has created further rifts, separating those who may fully participate in society, by business travel or even attending a bar or restaurant, from those not permitted to do so based on their vaccination status.

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To avoid such values-based conflict, private sector employers are increasingly implementing policies prohibiting discussion of political or social issues, recognizing that such contentious discussions detract from collaboration between employees who otherwise would work well together.

Those policies have generally been successful, are best targeted at particularly antagonistic topics, and should be considered more routinely. Quite simply, there is no good reason to allow employees to broadly discuss their social, political, or public health-related opinions at work. It is not merely that others will be uncomfortable, even angry, but that it detracts from the very purpose of a workplace. Managing diverse opinions so as to avoid conflict is one of the new roles of human resources executives

Got a question about employment law during COVID-19? Write to Howard at levitt@levittllp.com.

Howard Levitt is senior partner of Levitt Sheikh, employment and labour lawyers with offices in Toronto and Hamilton. He practices employment law in eight provinces. He is the author of six books including the Law of Dismissal in Canada. Maxwell Radway is with Levitt Sheikh.