The no-man’s land of politics in post-election United States has widened civil disagreements to nearly impassable personal chasms. People all over the country have begun to reconsider their ties to people who supported opposing candidates.
Our small little climbing community is not immune to this partisanship. It’s understandable; this election bitterly divided much of the country. This divide has also surfaced questions in the climbing industry about when and if it is appropriate to inject partisan politics into business. What are the possible legal, reputational, and business effects of pointed political statements made as an employer and employee? What does it mean to make political statements as a private person versus as a more public business owner? And, in light of our current political climate, should a gym owner make forceful political statements in the view of their customers and employees?
Free to speak, with (near) impunity
Few legal repercussions exist for business owners who make political statements and run their businesses according to those views. The 1st Amendment, of course, protects speech from government interference and legal consequence, including political statements that intentionally or unintentionally exclude people who work for the person making the statement. It’s perfectly legal for an employer to post on Facebook about Clinton or Trump in a negative tone, even if employees disagree or feel uncomfortable about their disagreement with the post.
However, according to Jason Pill, attorney at Phelps Dunbar of Tampa, who specializes in labor and employment, this protection does not extend to employees. “The majority of states do not provide protection for political speech in the workplace, meaning that an employer could punish employees for making certain political statements with near impunity,” says Pill. Political beliefs do not earn employees the same protections that race, gender, disability, and other immutable traits do. If an employer wishes to do so, it is legal to make firing decisions based exclusively on whether or not the employee has expressed support for a candidate the employer opposes.
If, for example, Joe the Head Setter, decides to post on Facebook or talk in the gym about his hatred for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, his employer can fire him for it, except in limited cases under the National Labor Relations Act. For instance, he could decide to make overt political statements about minimum wage or other issues that affect workplace conditions and remain protected under the law. Generally speaking, though, he can be fired for speech, while his employer would not see any repercussion when firing him for it.
But while it may be legal to excoriate supporters of a major political party, this does not free employers from other consequences.
The bigger task, for most gym owners, is to consider the reputational effects of a partisan political statement. This election was close and contentious. People on the left and the right watched the results of November 8 with a sense of surprise that the country was divided. Yet despite a shared love for climbing, no clear evidence shows that the climbing community is otherwise more ideologically homogenous than the rest of the country, leaving gym owners open to hurting their standing in the community – with both employees and customers.
The risk of assuming political stances is easily overlooked in the climbing world. This was exhibited soon after Election Day when the CEO of a major climbing brand posted to his personal Facebook page calling for a boycott against Asana Climbing for being “composed of Trump fans.” The CEO later deleted the post and declined to comment for this article.
For his part, Jamey Sproul, CEO of Asana, told CBJ that his company is in no way “composed” of Trump supporters (or for that matter Clinton supporters). Similar examples are popping up throughout the online climbing world, but the business risks may not be worth the catharsis they provide.
“If you’re making a certain statement, or limiting certain customers based on political ideology, there’s an inherent risk that you’re disenfranchising half the population, because the election was roughly 50/50, give or take a few percentage points,” says Pill.
With that said, if you think this type of social media exchange is covered under libel laws, think again. It is very difficult to prove falsity and malice, which are two major tests for libel.
Even if the business owner keeps a partisan statement out of the workplace and posts to his or her personal Facebook, it may not make a difference. The distinction between a business owner’s personal views and the stance of the business is murky at best.
“When you’re a CEO and you’re making a statement, it’s very difficult to parse out when it’s personal and when it’s business. But the reality is, all businesses are legal fictions created for convenience. We have created them statutorily, and they cannot act on their own. They act through their actors and agents, but it’s often a gray area when we’re dealing with owners. It makes it difficult to distinguish the two,” says Pill. Distinguishing between the views of the owner and the inclusiveness of the business may not even matter to customers, who may feel ostracized and take their business elsewhere.
It’s about community, not owner beliefs
It’s anyone’s prerogative to make political statements as they choose; we live in a country where no one will go to jail for starting boycotts of other political views, or maintaining a personal circle inside of which no opposing views are admitted. But we also live in a country where diverse politics exist in unexpected places.
For example, Sproull of Asana Climbing, which is based in Idaho where Trump won nearly 60% of the vote, did not want to disclose his vote for President. “I try not to interject my personal political opinions whatsoever into my business because I don’t want anyone in Asana to feel threatened,” says Sproull. And despite its base in a strong red state, Asana employs a diverse group of people, including refugees. Sproull believes the climbers he employs tend to be liberal, but he also works with others who, he’s noticed, hold political opinions he doesn’t agree with.
While it’s expected that Americans hold strong political beliefs and emotions about the state of the country, it’s difficult to safely wield political statements against other businesses or individuals, especially in an industry fundamentally based on shared interests; it can backfire against the a business’s bottom line as often as it succeeds to target the wallet of another individual.
The question ultimately lies in the goal of a gym or company: is it a place where the shared interest in the sport brings disparate ideas together in community, or is it a place to establish pockets of political belief? When Asana was a new company, Sproull freely shared his political beliefs with employees, but as the business grew he noticed more of his employees didn’t necessarily agree with him.
“It was when I heard other opinions that I didn’t fully align with, that I realized I needed to remove myself from the conversation.”