Political Expression and Masks – What is an Employer to Do?

In this era of political and social upheaval that continues to coincide with the ongoing Covid-19 epidemic, companies across the United States have been forced tackle the difficult issue of determining whether they will permit employees to wear masks that contain political messages.  While many companies have traditionally held to the view of banning all political messages on clothing or employee uniforms, the prevalence of ongoing political and social movements has convinced some companies to begin permitting employees to wear clothing and masks containing certain political messaging. 

While some companies have permitted employees to display political messages on their clothes or face masks, others have reprimanded employees on the premise that the display of political messages is against company policy.  For example, employees of restaurant franchises like Chik Fil A recalled being warned against wearing masks with the Black Lives Matter logo and in one particular incident, an employee of Taco Bell was captured on video being fired for their refusal to remove a mask containing the Black Lives Matter slogan.[1]  Notably, some employers have stated that the policy against permitting certain messages from being displayed is to prevent a reaction from employees or customers who have a different viewpoint. 

The expressiveness of this political era has left the H.R. departments in a dilemma over what course of action to take.  Banning masks containing certain political messages but permitting masks containing a different ideology has the potential to cause employees to feel that their employer is biased against them.  This can potentially lead to claims of discrimination by the employee whose message isn’t permitted to be displayed.   

 If employers do not permit certain messages to be displayed, then the policy should be universally applied to all political messages and groups.  If employers have decided to permit certain political messages to be displayed on face masks and pins, they should anticipate that there might be reactions from those with opposing views.  Therefore, its highly recommended that employers adopt a blanket policy to prevent any claims of bias in treatment by an employee or disputes between employees or between employees and customers. 

If you or your H.R. department have any questions concerning the display of political messages by employees please do not hesitate to call us at 516-888-1208 or email Cynthia Augello at caugello@augellolaw.com.

Thank you to Joel Thomas, JD for his assistance with this post. 

[1] Kate Taylor and Palmer Haasch, Taco Bell apologizes and says it does not ban employees from wearing Black Lives Matter Masks, after a worker was fired for doing so in viral video, Business Insider (June 18, 2020) https://www.businessinsider.com/taco-bell-apologizes-worker-fired-for-black-lives-matter-mask-2020-6

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