By LYNAE TUCKER
Expressing yourself politically—both online and in the workplace—can be nerve racking as a law student. Sure, lawyers are often politically and socially active. But how should you address your passionate views when a job is at stake? With care and planning, experts say.
Being a lawyer is all about social activism, according to Michael Jacobson, a legal editor and human resources consultant for Reed Business Information. “It’s very difficult to separate the professional aspects of being a lawyer from your personal life,” said Jacobson. “The question isn’t whether some-one should be politically or socially active. The question is: How does one go about it in a professional way?”
Although the First Amendment grants us the freedom of speech, there are legal limits you should consider before expressing your beliefs in the workplace or online. Daniel Kniffen, a partner at Drew Eckl & Farnham in Atlanta, warned that freedom of speech extends only to public employ-ers, and even then there are limits.
“There are constitutional protections of free speech for public em-ployers, but those aren’t limitless,” said Kniffen. “You may have more protections as a public employee, but it doesn’t allow you to be disruptive.”
Jacobson agreed. “When it comes to private employers, as much as you have the right to express yourself, so does your employer,” said Jacobson. “If your employer doesn’t agree with your opinion or if your beliefs be-come a distraction, your employer has grounds for dismissal.”
Private employees are afforded more protections than government employees, Jacobson added. But if your employer can demonstrate that your opinions are directly contrary to the mission of your employer, you’re no longer protected.
How to protect yourself
Before you express your beliefs on controversial topics, Jacobson and Kniffen recommend considering the risks involved.
“The largest risk you take when put-ting your beliefs online is potentially alienating a large segment of employers,” warned Jacobson. “If your posts come up on a background check, the employer may choose not to hire you based on those beliefs. Although an employer would never say that’s why it passed on a candidate, it’s completely legal.”
Be aware of sensitivities, and think through the topic before you express yourself online or at your workplace. “Political and social topics that are controversial aren’t topics you want to start talking about in an interview or at a cocktail party,” stated Kniffen. “But if the topic is brought up, don’t be bashful about articulating a well-thought-out belief in a way that puts your best foot forward.”
According to Kniffen, you can avoid alienating co-workers and future employers by taking the time to practice explaining your stance in a way that isn’t pushy or trying to pick a fight. Your goal should always be to show you can articulate and persuade on an issue you care deeply about.
When you choose to address social and political topics online or in the workplace, it’s important to focus on how you do it. According to Kniffen, most law firms aren’t concerned about an employee who has strong political beliefs; they may even admire someone who’s passionate about social and political topics.
“But there’s a big difference be-tween a casual lunch conversation versus someone going office to office handing out flyers or asking for campaign donations,” said Kniffen.
“The question employers have to ask themselves is: Is what this person doing disrupting our work environment? A productive work environment is the employer’s number-one goal.”
If your beliefs don’t align with those of your employer, you have a number of options. Jacobson recommends seeking out your mentor or discussing your concerns with the human re-sources department at your job.
“The important thing to focus on is adapting to your work environment,” stated Jacobson. “No one is going to say not to be yourself. But you can’t be openly saying things that reflect poorly on your employer, either. There’s an important balance to be struck.”
So how important is it that your beliefs align with those of your employers? According to Jacobson, that shouldn’t deter you from considering potential employers. “You can still do your job even if your opinions differ,” reminded Jacobson. “Don’t rule out jobs based on the employer’s publicized beliefs. You’ll most likely find like-minded people within any company if you just give it a chance.”
LYNAE TUCKER is the student editor of Student Lawyer and a second-year student at University of South Dakota School of Law in Vermillion.