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You Can’t Say That! Or Can You? How To Handle Political Discussions In The Workplace

Most people will agree talking politics at a dinner party can certainly ruin a dinner party.  As we know political conversations can be disruptive to even the closest friend or family relationships and this is a good reason to avoid these conversations.  Similarly, politics can fracture and divide a workplace creating discord among coworkers who need to rely on one another to perform their jobs effectively.  A casual political discussion can escalate into a shouting match and possibly lead to employees passing judgment of others’ political beliefs and opinions.  Employers should understand that as professionals, neutrality of opinions must be a key strategy to keep politics out of the workplace in order to preserve employee retention, client acquisition, and revenue generation.

Here at PMP, we understand politics is a sore subject that can cause derailing effects to a workplace.  That is why we have created some helpful tips you can adopt to keep political disagreements out of the workplace without running afoul of the law.

Create a “politics-free” code of behavior and communicate the policy to all of your employees:

A provision in an employee handbook detailing a code of behavior can help employees understand what behavior is and is not appropriate for the workplace.  Creating a section in the handbook devoted to politics will eliminate any uncertainty about what the company deems to be acceptable political discourse.  This policy should be formalized in writing and employers should direct managers and supervisors to review it with their direct reports.  What employers must recognize and plan for is that short of an outright ban on non-work talk during working hours, there is nothing they can do to stop political speech.  An employer may not ban non-harassing and non-discriminatory political discussion without also banning discussion of other non-work topics.  Employers must realize a complete ban on non-work talk would be impossible to implement and enforce.  Therefore, employers should make clear political conversations in the workplace can lead to tense and precarious relationships among coworkers, and employees must understand that the stability of the workplace and the company hinges on their acceptance and adherence to the code of behavior.

Target employee disruptions instead of politics:

Even if the company’s handbook contains a strong policy about political talk, these policies will be ineffective if they are not widely known and enforced.  Business owners should ask their supervisors to be vigilant in enforcing the company’s code of behavior governing political discussion and speak with employees who are being too vocal and demonstrative about their political leanings.  Managers and supervisors must be proactive and set a precedent of adherence to the code of behavior by speaking to employees who are being “too open” about their personal political beliefs.

Additionally, it is just as important for managers to know how to conduct themselves as it is for workers.  Employers should instruct their managers and supervisors how to handle a situation where a political discussion is getting heated.  Instead of the manager inserting his or her political opinion and further instigating the political discussion, the manager should stop the conversation by telling the employees they can finish their conversation at another time outside of the workplace.

Be cautious of implicating any protected classes under federal law and protected rights under the National Labor Relations Act:

Federal law does not inherently protect political speech.  However, as a result of the wide range of political issues that often involve race, religion, and sexual orientation, political discussions and disagreements will often touch on these protected categories.  If an employer prohibits a member of a protected class from discussing an issue relevant to them personally this could run afoul of discrimination laws.  .  Employers must enforce and apply the code of behavior equally among all protected classes.  For example, an employer may be subject to a discrimination claim if the employer fires a female employee who supported Trump but not a male employee who did the same.

Similarly, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) does not protect political discussion.  Employers must be cognizant of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and must careful not to infringe on rights protected under Section 7 of the NLRA when drafting policies to avoid issues with political speech.

Be sensitive to the potential volatility of the situation:

As a business owner, you should lead by example and demonstrate respect for everyone’s point of view regardless if it is extremely different from your own.  Remember that diversity of opinions in the workplace is a good thing and the main goal is to maintain productivity without allowing political disagreements to undermine your company’s effectiveness and cohesiveness.  In the context of the particular political climate we find ourselves in today, you must realize the importance of keeping politics outside the workplace, because politicians will come and go but your business must survive.

For further discussion or questions, PMP is available to help your business navigate how to keep politics out of your workplace.

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