Can You Be Fired for Being a Racist?

4 minute read

After images of white nationalists rallying in Charlottesville, Va., circulated widely on social media last weekend, the internet went to work to identify the tiki torch-bearing participants.

Efforts to expose the white nationalists had immediate effects — online posts revealing their identities led to employers finding out that some of their workers had marched in Charlottesville. The Twitter account @YesYoureRacist led to a mass outing of the demonstrators — of about the dozen people identified, one person was publicly disowned by his family, while another lost his job.

While Logan Smith, who runs the @YesYoureRacist account, did not directly contact employers of the demonstrators, he said in an interview with TIME that marching in white nationalist rallies should have consequences.

“Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from criticism,” he said.

This applies to the workplace in particular, and is an issue that has cropped up among employers multiple times this month. The firing of a Google engineer earlier in August after he wrote an anti-diversity memo claiming that biological differences between men and women prevent gender equality in tech intensified the debate over free speech in the workplace.

Following the rally in Charlottesville, employers quickly became embroiled in their workers’ off duty conduct when their identities disseminated online. In the last decade, a growing number of companies have taken action against employees whose behavior off the clock reflects badly upon employers, according to Katherine Stone, a labor and employment law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Social media makes it easier for companies to get shamed or informally boycotted, or to get a bad reputation,” Stone told TIME. “Firms are much more conscious that their reputations are much more public or fragile or much more vulnerable.”

Depending on the kind of job, a person can get fired for espousing racist beliefs if the employer feels it reflects poorly upon them, according to law experts. While those who work in the public sector or in a state that has protective laws for workers cannot be fired for expressing political opinions, non-union workers in the private sector exist at the whim of their employers.

In the case of Cole White, one of the first marchers to be identified in the Charlottesville rally, being outed on the internet had a direct effect on his employer. White, who previously worked for a hot dog restaurant in California, “voluntarily” resigned from his position last weekend, his employer told the Washington Post. The restaurant, Top Dog, was “inundated with inquiries” after White was linked to it, and eventually posted a sign on its door condemning the rally and saying that White no longer worked at the establishment. Top Dog did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Samuel Estreicher, director of the Center for Labor and Employment Law at New York University, said he found the campaign to expose the white nationalists “a little problematic.” The white supremacists had a right to march, he said, and were not associating with their employers until people identified them from photographs and videos.

“The fact that they themselves did not link what they were doing what they were doing with their employer should count for a lot,” he said.

Estreicher noted, however, that employers have the right to fire workers if they feel implicated in an employee’s actions.

To Stone, the recent move to publicly identify white nationalists is part of a wave of shaming anyone who takes part in hateful causes.

“It’s the idea that people who engage in hateful and evil practices should be called out and named and shamed. They’re trying to say that people who have engaged in this can’t go pretend they didn’t do anything,” she said.


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