When election day draws near, political conversations and debates become a common occurrence amongst acquaintances, friends, and families—and even inside the workplace. In fact, one survey by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. reports that 94 percent have overheard political discussions at work, with 18.2 percent saying those discussions happen often.
Political talk between workers can be a nightmare for employers, as conversations regarding candidates often focus on sensitive topics and can easily lead to a disruption of productivity, a tension-filled work environment, and liability issues. As an employer, you have a responsibility to make sure your employees feel comfortable at work, but what can you do to keep the political peace at work?
What are your rights as an employer?
In order to address the issue of political speech in the workplace, employers must first fully understand their limitations when it comes to controlling these types of discussions. For example, there are different restrictions based on whether a company is a private or public-sector employer.
Public-sector employers are subject to First Amendment rights to free speech and cannot limit employee speech—even if it’s related to politics. As such, making employment decisions based on an employee’s political activity can cause significant concerns. Political patronage and the Hatch Act of 1939 must also be considered when it comes to the political discussion rights of public-sector employees.
Private employers are not subject to the free speech restrictions of the US or state Constitution and as such may generally impose broader limits on employee’s political activities and discussions during working hours. However, private employers cannot restrict speech (or impose conditions on the use of company property or systems such as email that would interfere with employee speech) on issues covered by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which protects the “concerted activity” of employees to pursue better pay and working conditions. With political discussions often broaching sensitive employment issues, companies should be very careful when moderating employee conversations, even if appears as if they’re just talking “politics”.
There are additional considerations to be aware of when it comes to determining how to handle political talk from employees. For that reason, it’s important that you discuss this subject with your HR representative and/or legal counsel so that you completely understand the laws and regulations on addressing political talk or displays in the office.
Tips for keeping the peace at work
As an employer, the best and safest way to keep the political peace in your workplace is to establish a culture of respect and set the example from the top down. Consider implementing these three methods:
Keep your company’s political preferences private
A good practice is to avoid bringing up politics altogether. This includes not publicizing your company’s stance on certain political topics and presidential candidates. Endorsing a particular candidate not only runs the risk of alienating some employees and customers, it also opens the door for political discussions between employees.
Provide guidance to management
The people in your leadership and management positions greatly affect your company’s success—both internally and externally. So take the time to inform/train your leaders on the importance of avoiding political talk and displaying respect and civility to each other at all times. They set the example so make sure it’s positive.
Educate employees on anti-harassment policies
Keep your employees well-educated on the ins and outs of your anti-harassment/bullying policy. If employees come across other coworkers who are feuding over political beliefs, management should be notified immediately. In these cases, HR should meet with the employees to let them know that political battles should be kept out of the office.
We are in politically contentious times. As an employer, it’s important to take time to review how your company will promote a culture of respect and handle political discussions. And as always, it’s vital that you involve your HR and/or legal counsel on this matter.
This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Due to the complexities of the interaction between employee free speech and the NLRA, employers should always consult with experienced employment law counsel before attempting to restrict or moderate employee speech.