• Marisa Eckberg

Election Fever at Work: Handling Political Discussions in the Workplace

Growing up, my father would always say that there were three things we never talk about at the dinner table: money, politics, and religion. And the older I get, the more I realize he was right. These topics are all very personal topics that when discussed in mixed company can turn into polarizing, acrimonious discussions. I often use this as a rule of thumb in the workplace…of course, being the HR nerd that I am, I’ve added other categories like race, gender, sex, and age as well.

As election day approaches this year, there will be more open discussion around political candidates and policies. This is what’s wonderful about our country, right? We live in a democracy where the people get to vote for the person whose policies and values best match our own and who we feel will do the best job running the country. As we begin to hear more and more political small talk in the office leading up to the 2020 election, employers should be thinking now about how they will handle political discussion in the workplace. Here are a couple of things to consider:

How Much is Too Much?

First, employers must consider to what point they will allow political discussion in the office. A respectful debate over lunch is one thing, but what happens when political disagreements at work turn ugly? Raised voices cause a distraction for coworkers, feelings can get hurt, and team cohesion can suffer. Some employees may even refuse to work together (yes, this really happens). And sometimes a political debate about immigration policy, for example, can even devolve into a hostile work environment scenario.

In my experience, there is no right answer here. It depends on the employer and the workplace’s unique culture. Some employers may set clear restrictions around political discussion, and some may choose to deal with individual occurrences of crossing the line as they come up. The key here is a healthy awareness of the possible issues that may arise and a plan for how to address them.

Freedom of Speech

It may come as a surprise to some that our country’s First Amendment right to free speech does not apply to the private workplace. The First Amendment prevents the government, but not companies or individuals, from limiting free speech. This means that political discussion and affiliation are not federally protected. There are a handful of states that do guarantee some protection to employees, so you will want to double-check if you are in a state other than Texas.

However, the big caveat here is the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Specifically, Section VII of the act that protects employees’ right to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment. This is called “protected concerted activity”. An example of this would be if employees were discussing their own pay as it related to gender pay equity or raising the federal minimum wage. An employer cannot prohibit this type of discussion.

How to Control It

Employers have a responsibility to make sure employees feel comfortable in the work environment. Managers and supervisors should be trained to immediately stop any political discussion that becomes aggressive, disrespectful, threatening or physical. Additionally, I typically encourage managers and above to refrain from all political discussions with direct reports. This is due to the perception that may be created should a management decision appear to be favoritism or retaliation with respect to political affiliation. I.e. “Sally gets all the good shifts. I bet it’s because she and the manager are the only Democrats on the team…”

Stay Consistent

Employers must be consistent when limiting certain behaviors in the workplace. For example, if an employer has a non-solicitation policy that prohibits employees from selling items for their child’s school fundraiser, then the policy would apply to any form of political solicitation as well. Keep in mind that employers cannot pick and choose. The application of policies must be consistent.

Employers may also enforce practices that affect customer perception of the company’s political views. For example, an employer can forbid a customer-facing employee from wearing a political button while on the job, as long as this is a part of the employer’s dress code policy.

As we enter the final stretch before the 2020 Presidential election, it is important to keep in mind that the trouble with workplace political discussions is not that they are political, but that they can become disruptive if an employer is not aware of the potential for certain issues to arise and how to handle them.

If you have specific questions about political discussions in the workplace, reach out to your corporate HR team, HR Consultant (like me!) or an employment attorney.

Photo Credit: Ken Ellis

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