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Can You Be Fired for Political Activism?

Recently, Saily Avelenda resigned from her job as senior vice president and assistant general counsel at Lakeland Bank in New Jersey.
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Why? Because Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen — called “the most powerful congressman in New Jersey” by WNYC.org — wrote a letter to a member of the bank’s board, informing him that Avelenda was involved in NJ 11th for Change, an activist group.

ThinkProgress quotes Frelinghuysen’s letter:

“[L]et’s be clear that there are organized forces?—?both national and local?—?who are already hard at work to put a stop to the agenda of limited government, economic growth and stronger national security,” Frelinghuysen’s letter reads. “As you may have seen in the front page of the New York Times, the Democrat political organizations, the ‘DCCC’ run by Nancy Pelosi, has targeted my district for Democrat takeover. Democrats have chosen to targets districts like ours because we sit in prime media markets and their protesters are highly organized.”

But at the bottom, in blue pen, Frelinghuysen wrote by hand: “P.S. One of the ringleaders works in your bank!”

“Needless to say, that did cause some issues at work that were difficult to overcome,” Avelenda told WNYC.

She added: “I had to write a statement to my CEO, and at my level as an assistant general counsel and a senior vice president, at this employer it was not something that I expected. I thought my Congressman put them in a situation, and put me in a really bad situation as the constituent, and used his name, used his position and used his stationery to try to punish me.”

Avelenda was not fired, but says she resigned in part due to the pressure she received in the wake of the incident.

This isn’t an isolated incident: over the years, there have been plenty of news stories about workers, liberal and conservative alike, who say they’ve lost their jobs or experienced problems in their careers due to their activism outside of work. The question is: is it legal for an employer to fire workers for their beliefs?

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At-Will Employment and Political Activism

“Generally speaking, there is nothing that prohibits a private employer from firing an employee for engaging in First Amendment speech, or having certain political beliefs,” says Dan Kalish, Managing Partner of HKM Employment Attorneys LLP. “Some states (such as Connecticut) have passed laws that prohibit an employer for firing an employee for engaging in political speech, but most states do not have these laws.”

Most workers in the U.S. are employed “at will,” meaning that employers can fire them at any time, for almost any reason or no reason at all. In practice, this means there’s nothing to stop your employer from firing you for political activity — or making a mental note of your activism and firing you under another pretext later on.

Most U.S. workers are employed “at will,” meaning that employers can fire them for almost any reason.Click To Tweet

Does this mean that activism and employment are mutually exclusive? No. But it does mean that you’ll want to take some care to separate the two. It’s never a good idea to bring your political beliefs into the office, for example, even if you’re relatively sure that many of your coworkers agree with you. You might also consider locking down your social media so that the office snoop can’t get the lowdown on what you do with your off-hours.

Another option might be to look for an employer that aligns with your values. If you find it difficult to contemplate stifling your political beliefs for job security, you could consider transitioning to non-profit work and toiling for your cause. Liberal or conservative, there’s an organization out there that’s trying to make your dreams a reality. Now might be the time to make your passion into a career.

Tell Us What You Think

Have you been fired because of your personal beliefs? We want to hear from you. Tell us about your experience in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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