It seems the Presidential campaign of 2016 has been going on forever, and we still have more than seven more months to go. For those of us in the workplace, every day is a minefield. Do we voice our opinions? Do we stifle others who voice theirs? Just like at the dinner table, politics and religion are difficult topics in the workplace.
1. What laws control political speech at work?
First of all, remember that the First Amendment does not apply to private employers. Employees do not have free speech rights that either for-profit or not-for-profit organizations have to recognize at the office. Therefore, private employers have a lot of discretion in how they address political speech and other expressions.
Indeed, political speech and activities, even away from the job, has cost even high-level employees their jobs. Remember that Brendan Eich was fired as CEO of Mozilla because of a political donation.
However, employer discretion does have limits. The National Labor Relations Act can permit political discussions and distribution of political materials in nonworking areas and on nonworking time.
Moreover, some state laws restrict what employers can do. Some state statutes protect employees who discuss politics at work or who wear or display political symbols. Other states prohibit disciplinary action or other retaliation against employees who engage in political activities. And many states forbid employers from coercing political action or particular votes by their employees. It’s important to know the law in your jurisdiction.
One commentator has stated bluntly:
Most people have an opinion when it comes to politics. So should employers and HR managers keep such talk out of the workplace?
They can’t, experts say, since attempting to ban political discussions is not only illegal, but also impossible to enforce from a practical perspective. But employers still have a responsibility to make sure workers feel comfortable at work. And it’s a delicate balance, employment lawyers say, because one person’s free speech is another person’s loud-mouthed bullying.
See Political Debates in the Workplace: Where to Draw the Line, by Susan Milligan, published on the SHRM website on May 12, 2015. This may be an overstatement, but it’s worth considering. And it’s probably true in some jurisdictions.
Whatever the law, remember that employers can set productivity and behavioral standards. Even in states with limits on employer responses to employee political speech and action, an employer can discipline or discharge an employee for legitimate, business-related reasons. Therefore, if an employee engages in behavior that interferes with the workplace or with his job duties, or if the employee is disruptive or violates some legitimate work policy, the employer can take action.
As with most policy-oriented actions, however, employers are on firmer ground if they apply their policies uniformly, without any discriminating against any protected group or based on the employee’s party or other political persuasion or position. It is easy for political activity to get mixed with race, gender or religion, so claims based on these protected categories are quite possible, if an employer isn’t careful.
2. What should managers do?
- Set the tone from the top by making sure managers respect the views of others.
- Encourage in-person interaction. Technology makes it tempting to communicate by email—another vehicle for heated political comments—but talking face to face is more likely to improve people’s behavior.
- Establish a culture of civility. All discussions—including political discussions—should be respectful and should abide by the company’s anti-harassment and other behavioral policies
Having a written policy about political expressions (speech, apparel, buttons, and other symbols), is a good idea, so that employees understand what is and is not acceptable in that workplace. The policy should cover not only oral discussions but also written communications, such as email and social media. Furthermore, employers should respond to employee complaints about political disagreements, just as they would to any other complaints.
3. What should employees who want to be politically active do?
Find out whether your employer has a policy and what it says. Most employees will probably decide not to push the limits of what is acceptable during work hours.
We’re all in this for the rest of the year, regardless of our political opinions. A little respect and civility can go a long way, on this issue as on so many others.
When has an upcoming election or a political issue caused problems in your workplace?