Few who work for David Siegel would likely mistake their boss for a man of the people. The Florida time-share titan is building himself a 90,000-square-foot house modeled on Versailles and claims he personally got George W. Bush elected in 2000. Back then he’d slip partisan articles inside the pay envelopes of employees of his Westgate Resorts and helped Republicans on staff register to vote. Siegel’s political tactics made headlines this month when he sent thousands of employees an e-mail that promised dire consequences should Barack Obama win reelection. “If any new taxes are levied on me, or my company, as our current President plans,” he wrote his workers, “I will have no choice but to reduce the size of this company.” That’s right: Vote Democrat and your job could be at risk. “I wanted to let my employees know what will come if they make the wrong choice. They need to worry if Obama gets reelected,” explains Siegel in an interview.
While Siegel is especially blunt about asking workers to vote for his man, he’s not the only employer sharing his political preference with the folks on his payroll. Earlier this month, Georgia Pacific’s 45,000 employees each received a packet in which David Robertson, president of Georgia Pacific’s parent, Koch Industries, warned of “higher gas prices, runaway inflation, and other ills” if they elect candidates who spend “billions in borrowed money on costly new subsidies for a few favored cronies.” Lest anyone working for a company controlled by the conservative billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch be confused about who they support, the packet—obtained by nonprofit political magazine In These Times—also listed favored candidates including Mitt Romney. (Georgia Pacific spokesman Greg Guest responded that the packet was informational, while noting unions and newspapers go further in actually endorsing candidates.)
ASG Software Solutions Chief Executive Officer Arthur L. Allen fired off a Sept. 30 e-mail linking the continued independence of the company to a Romney victory. On Sept. 28, Michigan auto parts manufacturer Richard Lacks sent a note along with staff bonuses, pointedly reminding thousands of employees that the more money the government gets, the less money is left to give them.
Having a politically opinionated boss is nothing new. What distinguishes the recent spate of C-suite missives is the overt suggestion that people may risk voting themselves out of a job. Yet while such tactics may be questionable, they’re almost never illegal. “Ethics and law don’t always match,” says Risa Lieberwitz, a labor and employment law professor at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “While it seems undemocratic for someone who has that much power over you to tell you which way to vote, the law gives a lot of power to private-sector employers.”
Not only are CEOs free to pepper their workers with frequent reminders of how to vote, they’re generally free to fire individuals who fight back. Hit “reply all” to counter the boss’s political stance and you might be fired for misusing company e-mail. Or defy your supervisor’s worldview through social media and it can derail your career. Just ask Daniel Ray Carter Jr., the Virginia sheriff’s deputy who says he was fired for supporting the boss’s political opponent, including “liking” him on Facebook. In May, U.S. District Judge Raymond Jackson found that pressing the “like” button on a Facebook page is insufficient speech to warrant First Amendment protections. The case is on appeal.
That’s not to say opinionated employers can’t run afoul of other workplace protections. A boss’s support for free markets doesn’t mean workers can be fired if they unionize, nor can they stop communications related to workplace conditions. Promoting a candidate’s extreme views on, say, rape or African Americans could foster a hostile work environment or lead to charges of discrimination. Some states, including California and Oregon, protect employees’ rights to engage in political activities, and in the District of Columbia, one’s political affiliation is even considered a protected class.
Still, federal laws have made it practically impossible for people to shut the boss up. Besides allowing corporations to spend unlimited amounts to support or defeat candidates, the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission also made it easier for companies to encourage workers to vote for a particular candidate. The boss could already try to sway workers by telling them where candidates stood on issues important to the company, but they can go further now that many limits on corporate campaign speech have been lifted. “That includes allowing employers to say which way they’d like individuals to vote,” notes Frank Morris, who runs the labor law practice for Washington-based Epstein Becker Green.
With emotions running high in the political arena, the most potent curb on business leaders may simply be common sense. “The discussions can get out of hand,” Morris says. “We get a lot of calls from employers who want to prevent acrimony. They’re worried about productivity and morale.”
Not David Siegel. He is determined to talk up the need for a new man in the Oval Office. “We businessmen are so tired of being vilified when we create all the jobs and pay most of the taxes,” he says. “Thank God I come to work everyday and employ 7,000 people.”