As we previously blogged, political speech in the workplace can be a tricky issue, and employers and employees should both be aware of when political expression is, and is not, acceptable at work. Recently, a federal court in Massachusetts dismissed a lawsuit brought by Whole Foods employees who claimed their race-related political speech was suppressed. Although this case was decided in Massachusetts, the decision was a straightforward application of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and is therefore instructive to employers and employees all across the country.
The case involved a class action brought by 27 Whole Foods employees who alleged that they were punished for wearing Black Lives Matter masks at work. According to the complaint, Whole Foods threatened these employees with termination, gave them disciplinary “points,” and sent them home without pay. In response, Whole Foods argued that they simply enforced their facially neutral dress code against ““visible slogans, messages, logos or advertising” that are unrelated to Whole Foods.
The Court ruled in favor of Whole Foods on the grounds they had a racially neutral dress code, and even if Whole Foods may have selectively enforced it to suppress certain political viewpoints, this was not a violation of Title VII. The Court wrote, “Title VII prohibits discrimination against a person because of race. It does not protect one’s right to associate with a given social cause, even a race-related one, in the workplace.”
The takeaway is clear. Employers should make sure their dress codes are facially neutral and not enforced differently for employees of different races. Likewise, employees do not have a general right to dress however they want and express their political opinions in a manner that violates neutral dress codes.