As the presidential and congressional elections approach, federal employees must abide by the restrictions on political activity set forth in the Hatch Act. To that end, DLA’s Office of General Counsel and Office of Public Affairs are offering periodic guidance — answers to common questions that employees may have about what they can and can’t say and do in everyday situations. (See the recent article on the Hatch Act and social media here.)
In this article, an OGC attorney answers questions about workplace conversations — and the kinds of statements that constitute prohibited political activity.
If I have a friendly relationship with a coworker whose political views are different from mine, are we allowed on occasion to casually debate an issue or candidate in a friendly manner, if we both are comfortable doing so?
No, you can’t do that. The Hatch Act prohibits employees from engaging in partisan political activity while on duty or in a federal building. Partisan political activity includes speech, if it amounts to promoting a candidate for office — even a friendly conversation or an offhand comment.
However, the Act doesn’t stop employees from engaging in non-partisan political activities. So employees are free to express their views on ballot referenda, changes in municipal ordinances, proposed constitutional amendments, pending legislation or other matters of public interest, like issues involving highways, schools, housing and taxes. Of course, employees should be mindful of their agencies’ computer use policies prior to sending or forwarding any non-work-related emails.
If you and your coworker are not on duty and not on federal property, you’re allowed to have a casual debate about the candidates — provided neither of you is in a position to benefit or hinder the other at work. If that’s the case, then it’s what we call “inherently coercive.” Say you have the authority to approve or reject a project your coworker is working on: In that case, any political statement you make to your coworker could be inherently coercive, so it would violate the Act.
What if we’re at lunch?
If you’re on federal property, you’re still prohibited from expressing views on the election. However, if you are on a lunch break or other unpaid leave and are not on federal property, then you’re free to express any views you have — so long as the other person is not in a position to possibly feel influenced by your position.
For example, if you’re a supervisor at lunch with one of your direct reports off site, it would still violate the Hatch Act for you say who you support in an upcoming election. Likewise, if you’re a manager, director or other leader at an off-site lunch or volunteer project with employees of a lower grade — even if they don’t work for you — you should refrain from stating your views on any political candidate or election. The same is true (as with the example above) if any employee who’s in a position that has some authority or influence over the other person’s work.
What if I know my coworker shares my political views? Are we allowed to freely discuss our views with each other?
If you and your coworker are on duty or in a federal building, then no, you’re not allowed. You’re still prohibited from advocating for or against a political candidate, even if you share the same views. It doesn’t have to be a debate to be considered political activity.
Does the answer change if it’s not a coworker but someone I supervise? Or my own supervisor?
No. In fact, such conduct by a supervisor may be perceived as inherently coercive and violates the Act.
What if the other person is a contractor?
It’s still prohibited. The Act applies to all federal employees, no matter whom they’re communicating with — whether another federal employee or a contractor. In addition, an employee may not use his official authority or influence to interfere with or affect the result of an election. This includes using official authority to coerce any person to participate in partisan political activity.
Suppose if I live in the same neighborhood as a coworker or a direct report. Walking by their house, I see them outside, along with a campaign sign in their yard. If I say, “I can’t believe you’re supporting someone who will drive our country into ruin,” have I broken the law?
An employee making such statements in his or her personal capacity, outside any federal property, would not be in violation of the Act. But such a comment from a supervisor to a subordinate, even when off duty, may be inherently coercive and a misuse of an official position.
For more information on the Hatch Act, consult the DLA Hatch Act homepage.