Ask an Analyst: Can I Be Fired for Protesting?

Happy New Year! At Social Intelligence we provide employers and employees alike with helpful resources to navigate the ever-expanding world of social media screening for employment. Since that can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, we're pitching some of our most-asked questions to professional social media analysts.

Protesting is a proven and valued freedom of American civil life, but in today's political climate, Americans are more polarized than ever and more likely to speak out on their political beliefs. This has led a lot of people to the question, “Can I be fired for attending a protest?” It’s a valid question—social media is a primary channel for political organization and messaging, and evidence of active participation is likely to end up online.

It's might seem shocking, but the answer is actually yes. Legally, your employer could fire you for going to a protest because your free speech protections do not necessarily extend into an employment contract. If rules or guidelines for on and off-duty behavior are explicitly written into company policy, you are obligated to follow them or find employment elsewhere.

For insight on this topic I asked Social Intelligence's top social media analyst, Macall Burke, about political opinion and social media in the workplace.


LT: So what’s the likelihood that an employee could be fired for going to a protest? Should people avoid posting their political activities on social media for fear of the occasional check-in by HR?

MB: I can’t speak to likelihood or give advice one way or the other—it all depends on an employer’s values and whether that particular protest is calling those into question. I can tell you that you will be more likely to be fired if the protest turns out not to be peaceful or if illegal activity erupts.

Here at Social Intel, if an analyst comes across a post that showcases an individual participating in illegal activity in the context of a political protest (e.g tagging a building with graffiti), they'll flag it and include it in their report. However, it’s up to the employer to decide whether that’s a problem or not.


LT: What about hate speech?

MB: Well it’s no secret that there’s a proven public record of people being fired for posting hate speech online [see our posts here and here] and we’re in a climate where employers want to show that they’re being sensitive to that.

The First Amendment protects you from the government discriminating against you on the basis of viewpoint [for a recent ruling, see the The Slants case, Matal vs. Tam]. It does not protect you from the personal ethics of private citizens, including corporations.

If we come across posts that are blatantly bigoted, racist, or even violent—whether in the context of political protest or not—we flag them and put them into a report. But remember, it’s ultimately up to the values and policies of the employer to make the final call.


LT: So in terms of posting to social media, what questions should people be asking when they come across this dilemma?

MB: I would say examine your motives for posting online. Are you just trying to start a conversation? Or are you provoking people to outrage? If you’re posting to be inflammatory, you need to accept the possibility that your words could affect your professional reputation or, in more severe cases, your employment.

Remember that your tone is important, and intended motive is a huge reason why Social Intelligence employs human analysts to assist our social screening technology.  If you have a proven history of fostering civil dialogue on your social media and have built a reputation of integrity in your personal life, it’ll be a lot harder for an employer to find you at fault.

My best advice to those anywhere on the political spectrum looking for a job— find an organization whose internal values align with your own and establish that connection early in the relationship. Even if you're not a perfect match, by bringing civil discourse into the room you have already alleviated your employer's anxiety.