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Can You Hire or Fire Based on Political Beliefs?

A super-qualified candidate applies for your company’s latest open position. You call them and have a great pre-screen over the phone. You schedule an in-person interview, and you decide to do a little social media vetting before you meet.

You find the candidate’s public Facebook page and browse through some of their posts. That’s when you realize they have political views you vehemently disagree with.

What do you do?

We’ve talked before about the benefits and pitfalls of vetting candidates online. But as an HR representative, hiring manager or recruiter, what are you allowed (and not allowed) to do with information about a job seeker’s political leanings?

Applicants with public opinions are quickly learning that “free speech” doesn’t always extend to the workplace. Just recently, white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia found themselves without a job.

Private companies actually have quite a bit of leeway when it comes to hiring—and firing.

According to The New York Times, “the First Amendment’s guarantee offers no protection from being fired for something you’ve said, either in the workplace or outside of it, as on social media. That’s because the amendment addresses actions by the government to impede free speech, not by the private sector.”

“If you go through the list of federally protected characteristics, you will not see political beliefs on the list,” says The Washington Post. “Protected characteristics are basically the innate traits that federal anti-discrimination laws protect. These include traits like race, sex, disability, national origin, age, and religion.”

Let’s go back to the interview scenario. Just because you see an applicant talking about politics on social media (or elsewhere), should you let that factor into your decision?

Most hiring managers already know that it’s important to look beyond your own personal beliefs and to be objective when vetting candidates. For example, if you’re a vegetarian, you won’t necessarily reject someone who makes beef jerky in her spare time. (Unless she has a typo on her resume, perhaps.)

Prior knowledge of someone’s political leanings also doesn’t mean the topic is open for discussion during an interview.

“Although currently there are no federal laws that prohibit private employers from asking political affiliation questions, employers should probably refrain from asking such questions,” the Society for Human Resource Management recommends. “Employers should also check their state laws, which may prohibit discrimination based on political affiliation, activity or belief.”

That means questions like “Who did you vote for?” and “What’s your political party?” are off the table.

Instead, ask interview questions that focus on the candidate’s ability to put differences aside and get work done effectively. Use discussion starters like: “Tell me about a time you collaborated successfully with a difficult team” or “How have you overcome differences of opinion to build consensus during a project?”

The answers to those questions might help you decide whether this candidate will be able to put aside differences to become a productive asset for your company… or whether you should keep looking for someone else to fill the role.

As we’ve reported, there are countless benefits from creating a team rich in diverse backgrounds, experiences, and ideas. On the other hand, employers are not required to hire or protect employees whose beliefs are harmful or hurtful to their colleagues—like the engineer who penned the now-infamous “Google Manifesto” and was subsequently fired.

Hire or not hire? At the end of the day, there are many factors to weigh, and every candidate and company are different. The ultimate decision is up to you and your team.

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