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October Surprise: When CEOs Start Talking Politics

By now, you may have heard about the CEO of a privately-held resort company who e-mailed employees saying that four more years of the same Presidential administration could threaten their jobs. I vote for a conversation on the topic!

Here's an excerpt of Westgate Resorts CEO David Siegel's e-mail to 7,000 employees:

"The economy doesn't currently pose a threat to your job. What does threaten your job however, is another 4 years of the same Presidential administration," he said in the e-mail.

"If any new taxes are levied on me, or my company, as our current President plans, I will have no choice but to reduce the size of this company," he says in the nearly 1,400-word e-mail. "Rather than grow this company I will be forced to cut back. This means fewer jobs, less benefits and certainly less opportunity for everyone."

You can read the full e-mail here.

Mr. Siegel isn't the only C-suite dweller talking politics: It's estimated more than one-third (35%) of employers are sharing their political positions openly with employees. They're free to do so; First Amendment free speech rights, and so on. But there are limits. First, private employers cannot tell employees how to vote. Second, private employers who talk politics should never say or imply that they will retaliate against, or harass, certain employees (e.g., employees who fall into a protected class) because of their political opinions.

Senior management talking politics -- in the form of staff conversations, e-mails, corporate PACs, campaign rallies and donations -- is a question rank-and-file employees raise on anonymous message boards every election cycle. Can the company really do this?? Questions, questions.

It's not a question for government employees, however, because the 1939 Hatch Act prohibits state and federal civil servants paid with federal funds from taking part in what might be construed as a partisan political activity. This means no political campaign buttons at work, no candidate photos adorning cubicles, and presumably, no emails sent that even subtly suggest how to vote.

For now, we get to debate Mr. Siegel's e-mail, which doesn't mention Mr. Romney by name and appears to be a riff on a 2008 election chain letter. He doesn't seem to think his e-mail went too far, telling Gawker: "[The e-mail] speaks the truth and it gives [employees] something to think about when they go to the polls."

Or maybe we need to think about the subtle impacts of C-suite political speech (of any political persuasion) on the privately-held workforce? It would sure be a fascinating research question. I'll be waiting for the study. In the end, however, an employee's vote is the employee's personal business and not the business's business. Don't ask, don't tell, one (wo)man, one vote, or something like that. Take it away, Johnny Clegg and Savuka. Still a great song after all these years.

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