A worldwide pandemic. Racial conflict. Social unrest. Free-for-all debates on television and social media. At a time of extreme political divide and with a contentious presidential election less than six weeks away, simmering frustrations can quickly boil over in the workplace. Whether your workplace is fully open, fully virtual or somewhere in between, expect election-related tensions to run high through the November 3rd election and beyond.
Small business owners and managers can’t afford to ignore the potential for employees to get into loud, passionate disagreements about political candidates and positions. And, before an ugly situation bubbles up, they should know tactics to prevent it.
Employees often believe the First Amendment gives them the right to say anything they want to at work. It doesn’t. It protects citizens from government action that limits speech, but it doesn’t prevent private – that is, non-government – employers from restricting political discussion in the workplace, just as they would other forms of disruptive speech, such as harassment or discrimination.
While you as a private employer are permitted to regulate workplace political expression, you do have to be careful not to run afoul of the National Labor Relations Act. Section 7 of the Act allows employees – even those in private, non-union workplaces – to meet for purposes of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection. It can be hard to distinguish when regulating political speech crosses the line into what could be perceived as attempting to thwart employees acting together for their mutual benefit.
Say, for example, that an employee tells colleagues a preferred candidate will raise the minimum wage and comments about ways such a move could benefit the company’s workers. If it could be argued that a minimum wage increase could, indeed, improve their work environment or their situation as employees, it could be considered protected Section 7 speech.
Checklist for a “political safe zone” at work
Some news sources predict this year’s voter turnout will be the highest it’s been in a century – a good thing for the nation. So, while appropriately regulating political speech in the workplace keeps performance and productivity from declining and prevents employee discussions from crossing into bullying or harassment, you can achieve that goal without being heavy-handed. This eight-point checklist will help you maintain a productive and civil workplace throughout election season:
- Ask your HR team – or Axcet HR Solutions if you don’t have an internal team – to guide you in limiting political speech appropriately. For example, before the election gets any closer, you may want to disseminate a message from leadership to all employees acknowledging the strong opinions around this year’s races and encouraging employees to maintain a culture of harmony and mutual respect.
- Train managers to recognize when tensions are escalating and to step in to diffuse risky situations by shifting the focus onto company policies that support a cohesive culture. Managers also should be trained to recognize when political conversations tiptoe into protected activity under the NLRA. Missteps in managers’ handling of politically charged discussions can expose the company to legal risk.
- Remind employees at all levels that disrespectful behavior can result in disciplinary action. The rules apply as much for employees who are still working from home as for those who are working at the job site. Follow through by disciplining anyone who doesn’t adhere to the company’s anti-harassment, anti-bullying or anti-discrimination policies.
- Encourage employees to say something if they witness political belittling or other inappropriate behaviors. Make sure they know how to report such issues. Take every complaint seriously, investigate fully and be ready to take relevant action.
- Require anyone who wishes to share political information – even something as seemingly innocuous as offering to help colleagues figure out where their polling places are – to get the organization’s permission in advance. Or you may choose to implement a no-solicitation policy that prohibits any distribution of political material at work.
- Consider a dress code that addresses political attire employees may or may not wear in the workplace, whether in virtual meetings or on the physical premises. If you apply a dress-code policy, make it all or nothing. In other words, allowing supporters of one political party to wear t-shirts bearing the preferred candidate’s slogan but preventing the opposite party’s supporters from promoting their candidate in the same way could be problematic.
- Avoid using your position as “management” to suggest that employees consider voting a certain way “because it would be good for business.” While some states permit employers to make voting recommendations to employees, using intimidation or threats of layoffs to coerce an employee to vote a certain way is both wrong and illegal.
- In some organizations, employees are level-headed enough to discuss politics with each another without the conversation devolving into an argument. While many employers choose to play it safe by making all political dialogue off-limits, others believe their employee team can talk about politics and stay within appropriate boundaries. If this is the case at your workplace, allowing open conversation and idea-sharing can enhance all employees’ knowledge and understanding of complex political issues. If your workplace supports such dialogue, consider communicating the boundaries you expect employees to observe.
While good intentions and good policies help, you can’t force employees to avoid political talk at the office if they’re determined to engage co-workers in such discussions. Protect your organization by working with your management and HR teams to create an approach that minimizes risk by focusing on and encouraging a culture of understanding and mutual respect.