When it comes to making decisions about whom to vote for on Election Day, voters turn to many information sources and opinion leaders to evaluate candidates and their positions on critical issues. The most helpful among these provide facts and arguments based on values and political perspectives that voters can weigh against their own belief systems to make a final decision. Persuasion can be part of the associated conversations; intimidation, however, must not.
That is particularly true when those providing their political opinion have some sort of financial hold on those with whom they are sharing that opinion. That sort of power imbalance – such as that between an employer and employee – is one that must be treated with great care when it comes to sharing political perspectives. While employees might seek their bosses’ input and opinion on ballot decisions, there must be a clear line in how far that input goes: Employers have no business telling their employees how to vote, period.
A Pagosa Springs home health-care company’s owner overstepped the line recently when he sent an email to employees outlining how Obamacare would affect their jobs. Among the scenarios Chris Smith described: cutting employees’ hours to below 30 per week; downsizing to keep employee numbers below 50 total, thereby exempting the business from insurance provision requirements; and not providing health insurance and paying the fine. None of these is exactly comforting to employees, particularly at a time when jobs are fewer in number than those seeking work. But Smith did not stop with these hypotheticals. His email closed strongly: “If Romney is elected in 3 weeks, the Affordable Health Care Act ... has a good chance of being repealed and small businesses like ours will not drown. For the sake of the 80 people working for Visiting Angels and your own paycheck, remember ... it will be a close presidential race. Please VOTE!”
This request was preceded by a claim that, “We are not trying to sway your vote,” but the message that followed very much was, and it could not have been clearer – or more inappropriate. By linking employees’ future prospects to the election’s outcome so directly, Smith crossed a boundary from being an opinion leader to putting workers’ livelihoods on the line with respect to their political decisions. While Smith was well within his rights to share with employees his political views, he took it one step too far by describing how their vote could affect their future employment. Such a scare tactic is not respectable political discourse. It is intimidation.
Colorado Ethics Watch has filed a complaint against Smith for his email. It is worth investigating and clarifying for Smith and employers throughout the state just how far they can go in “educating” their employees when it comes to election-related decisions. It is difficult to remain dispassionate about these decisions, particularly when the rhetoric associated with many candidates’ campaigns is so inflammatory. In order not to fan the flames, though, we all have a responsibility to moderate our comments.