What Facebook's anti-conservative bias charge says about work

Facebook seems to have a Google problem. 

Last year, a Google engineer sparked outrage when he complained of his employer's perceived left-wing bias. Now, a Facebook worker is making similar claims.

Brian Amerige, a senior engineer at the social media company, wrote a lengthy memo obtained by the New York Times claiming the company had "a political monoculture that's intolerant of different views." Amerige said the culture discouraged criticism of social justice, immigration, diversity and equality, and that Facebook's "employees are afraid to say anything when they disagree with what's around them politically."

Dissenters, he said, "can either keep quiet or sacrifice [their] reputation and career."

While Facebook has faced accusations of bias from critics across the political spectrum, the company has been largely able to avoid signs of internal discontent, unlike its peers.

That makes it a relative rarity in today's politicized workforce.

The complaints Amerige described — of feeling isolated at work because of his politics — are becoming more common. In a study from the American Psychological Association last year, 1 in 4 workers said they felt stressed or tense as a result of political discussion at work, and 40 percent said politics caused at least one negative outcome, like difficulty getting work done or a feeling of hostility at work. Another study found that 60 percent of workers felt stressed out most of the time, with half of those blaming the political climate.

Fixing those complaints, though, is tricky. Legally, businesses are allowed to discriminate against workers based on their political views, except for a handful of states (such as New York and California) where political expression is protected from retaliation.

In most places, "a manager could schedule Trump supporters for more lucrative shifts, or could assign less desirable projects to Hillary supporters," and it would be completely legal, Dan Prywes, a partner at law firm Bryan Cave, told U.S. News and World Report.

That means federal contractor Akima was fully within its rights when it fired an employee for flipping off the president's motorcade, but did nothing when a senior director wrote online posts cursing out civil rights activists. The bartender who was fired for being rude to Trump supporters and the nurse who lost her job because she said she was voting for Mr. Trump are equally out of luck. Same goes, most likely, for anyone fired for an inflammatory social media post, or for attending a rally or volunteering for a cause outside of work hours.

"There is no free speech in corporate America," employment attorney Donna Ballman said in a blog post some years ago. "The First Amendment protects us from government action, not the actions of private companies. That means you can be fired because your private employer doesn't like what you said (or what you wore), with very few exceptions."

Among those exceptions are workers' freedom, under federal law, to discuss their wages, hours and working conditions, whether or not they're in a union. Workers are also protected from harassment or discrimination based on certain characteristics, like their age, sex or ethnicity. 

While employers can curtail discussion of those topics in the name of maintaining a harmonious workplace, it's not easy to draw the line, Inc. reports. "If an employee says, 'We'd be better paid if our boss was white and not an immigrant,' it's really easy to find yourself in those crosshairs," says Evan White, a partner at law firm White Harris, told the outlet.

Employers can also, if they choose, make explicitly political demands on their workers. While it's illegal to coerce workers into voting for a particular candidate, employers are allowed to talk their workers' ears off about what candidates they prefer and how they feel about issues from immigration to taxes to business regulation, to name just a few.