What are the risks of sending employees political ‘Trick or Treat’ emails?

It’s that time of year again.

The leaves are changing. There’s a chill in the air. And Americans are asking the age-old question, trick or treat?

Personally, I’ve never quite understood the choice:  I’ll take the treat any day. Well, OK:  unless said treat is candy corn. (Seriously, who craves that stuff, anyway?)

First_house_for_trick-or-treating.jpgBut what happens if it’s your employer asking the question?

With the 2012 presidential election coming just a week after Halloween, some US employers are effectively asking their employees politically-loaded ‘Trick or Treat’ questions.

But could employers be exposing themselves to risk by asking employees political ‘Trick or Treat’ questions?

Asking employees political ‘Trick or Treat’ questions

Earlier this month, some 7,000 employees at Westgate Resorts (in that perennial electoral battleground state, Florida), opened an email from their CEO David Siegel, setting out his case on why it was in his employees’ financial and professional interests to help defeat President Obama in November’s election.

Siegel effectively presented his employees with the employment version of the question of ‘Trick’ (in Siegel’s view, voting for Obama) or ‘Treat’ (voting for Romney). 

Siegel’s email, which has been widely disseminated and dissected over the past few media cycles, is modeled on a template that had been used in previous elections. 

This is not the only example of employers posing political ‘Trick or Treat’ questions to employees to have hit the headlines. 

Charles and David Koch – owners of Koch Industries and major Republican fundraisers – have sent their employees a similar email

Workers at Koch Industries’ subsidiary Georgia Pacific received a missive from their COO, stating that employees failing to vote for Koch-sanctioned candidates would “suffer the consequences.” The endorsed candidates were conveniently listed in an attached flyer.

It’s not just employers doing this. Candidates may also encourage employers to publicly endorse the policies that are in the best interests of the industry or employer. Governor Romney is reported to have done just that when speaking to small business owners recently.

Political ‘Trick or Treat’ emails:  Promoting dialogue or issuing an ultimatum?

There is no question that political debate is a good thing.

It warms my heart that citizens may actually be discussing some of the important issues surrounding this election. Many employers view the state of the economy, and the policies that directly affect it, as central to their organization’s long-term viability. Relevant voting issues for employers include funding entitlement programs, raising taxes and reacting to the Supreme Court’s recent decision on the Affordable Care Act.

However, before sending political ‘Trick or Treat’ emails to employees, you need to think about what you’re trying to achieve. Are you trying to begin a dialogue, provide training or issue an ultimatum? 

Depending on the tone and content of the message, employers may be engaging in conduct prohibited by local laws and regulations.

A number of states, including Tennessee and Florida, prohibit employers from making threats, whether express or implied, that are intended to influence the political opinions or votes of employees, especially within weeks of an election. Therefore, arguably coercive language such as “Vote for our candidate, or else” could pose some liability risks for employers.  

In addition to issues around legality, these emails could have something else: traction. For example, if a particular email to employees gets out into the wider world (as has happened with the emails mentioned above), the employer may face a public relations challenge.

Employers should be careful in asking employees political ‘Trick or Treat’ questions. 

Some of the potential associated risks – such as decreased business reputation, difficulties in recruitment and an intimidating corporate culture – could survive any election.

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