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Should you allow employees to discuss politics at work?

As political discourse ramps up, so does the likelihood that hot-button discussions will boil over between coworkers.

How can leaders limit the distraction posed by emotionally charged political talk? Can you ban all political discussions?

It may surprise you to learn that our country’s First Amendment right to free speech is protected in public companies and government agencies, but not in most private companies. In fact, political discussion and affiliation is not federally protected at all, though a few states do guarantee such protection to employees.

A big caveat to this: The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) prohibits an employer from banning workers from discussing the terms and conditions of their employment.

However, a discussion of one candidate’s support for raising the minimum wage may trail into talk about starting pay at your company. That’s protected speech since pay relates to your terms and conditions of employment and is legally allowed, no matter how uncomfortable it makes management.

In short, except in a few states, private employers have discretion to limit political expression in the workplace. However, in doing so, you must be cognizant of employee rights afforded by the NLRA.

Here are a few tips to help you keep political discussions in the office from killing employee productivity.

1. How to control the vitriol

Free speech rights don’t absolve you from monitoring workplace discussions. Managers have a responsibility to make sure employees feel comfortable in their environment. You’re also within legal boundaries to stop any disruptions that affect customer service or the team’s overall performance.

Discussion of sensitive topics, including an upcoming election, can impact morale, productivity and put a strain on relationships. What’s more, one person loudly discussing a candidate’s political position on protected factors, such as race, religion, national origin or gender has the potential to trigger workplace discrimination or retaliation complaints.

Before a passionate argument gets out of hand, consider stepping into the ring with some calming words. “Hey guys, I know you’re both passionate about this subject, but how about you agree to disagree? We need to meet today’s deadline, and this is distracting you and the rest of the team. Let’s get back to work.”

As team leader, you can, and should, immediately stop any talk that becomes aggressive, disrespectful, threatening, or even worse, physical. What’s more, stress to all supervisors the need to avoid political discussions with subordinates. Any hostile behavior goes against your company’s policies governing workplace safety and codes of professional conduct.

Likewise, you must react to derogatory jokes or comments about someone’s race, religion, origin, gender and other protected categories. If you don’t, you could face accusations of creating a hostile work environment.

2. Consistency is key

Companies must be consistent in limiting behaviors in the workplace. For instance, you may regulate political campaigning during work hours, if that’s consistent with your non-solicitation policy. In other words, if you forbid people from selling items for their child’s school, you can forbid political solicitation. But you can’t pick and choose. What’s allowed must be consistent.

You may also implement and enforce practices that affect a public, customer-facing perception of the company’s political views. This means you can forbid a public-facing employee from wearing a political button while on the job, if such behavior is codified in your dress code.

But what if the same employee wants to place that political button on her personal bulletin board in her cube in the back office? The answer: It depends. Does your company have standards that outline how cubes may be decorated? Does the message on the button cause a workplace disruption? The key is to handle such issues consistently. Also, under the NLRA, employees have the right to display labor union items at work.

3. Email reminders may help

Consider writing a series of proactive emails and stagger delivery for the weeks before an election. Your first email might remind employees of your company’s conduct and workplace harassment policies. It should also emphasize the need to respect individual differences and maintain civility toward coworkers.

Your next email could restate the company’s electronic communication policy – that business equipment, computers and email are designated for business purposes only. Use this as another opportunity to encourage employees to engage one another in a professional manner, no matter the topic.

A third email might cover non-solicitation policies at work and a reminder that while political dialogue in the office may be protected, it is not acceptable to make coworkers feel uncomfortable, harassed or intimidated. As the employer, you must take appropriate action if such discussions trigger workplace harassment and discrimination.

With testy feelings at the surface,  it may be wise to seek outside counsel from your legal or HR team before taking action against an employee for his political actions or speech.

It’s an unspoken rule that oversharing personal details at work can be a career killer. However, it’s never good business to make employment decisions based on lawful, off-duty conduct, including political activity. Make sure your hiring managers know this.

Hiring, firing and managing can be complicated. Learn how to keep things legally compliant by downloading our free e-book, Employment Law: Are You Putting Your Business at Risk?, now.