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Political Debate in the Workplace: More at Stake than Lost Productivity

It’s election season and, unless you’ve mastered the art of conversation avoidance, it’s likely that you’ve been invited (or forced!) into a political discussion in the course of an average day. This election is a little “louder” than those of the past. With the constant media attention given to our current Republican and Democratic Presidential candidates, the campaign trail seems to have barged right into our homes and workplaces, mostly uninvited.

According to a new CareerBuilder survey, 3 in 10 employers (30%) and nearly 1 in 5 employees (17%) have argued with a co-worker over a particular candidate this election season, most often about Donald Trump.[1] This same survey reports that male employees (20%) reported a higher incidence of arguing about politics at work than female employees (15%). Comparing age groups, at 24% younger workers (those between the ages 18 and 24) are the most likely to report engaging in heated political debates at work.

loss_productivityBeyond potential morale and productivity issues, political debate in the workplace may create a potential liability for employers. Conversations around our current Presidential candidates can easily focus on race, sex or religion. This can provide grounds for harassment, discrimination or other types of workplace complaints.[2]

Before we pull out our pens to write a new policy on political debate, let’s remember one thing: Employees don’t have a Constitutional right to free speech or freedom of expression at work.[3] The first amendment applies to government censorship, not workplace censorship. The Constitution allows private businesses to regulate speech in the workplace, and even to bar political discussion entirely. Public employees are more protected by free-speech rules, but even government offices can impose limits.

Still, the potential liability should not be dismissed. It would be nearly impossible to ban all political discussion in the workplace. Chances are that your current policies already have you covered, but here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Ensure your harassment policy and harassment complaint procedure are visibly posted and that employees have been trained on both. Take this opportunity to remind employees of any guidelines that prohibit bringing campaign materials into the workplace.
  2. While employers can implement dress code policies that prohibit the display of political items at work, the National Labor Relations Act says that employees have the right to display Union insignia while at work. So, for example, if what Donald Trump said is true, and “the men and women of the Teamsters are with Trump,” that “Teamsters for Trump” lapel button is allowable in the workplace regardless of dress code.
  3. Remind managers and supervisors to avoid political discussions with their subordinates and to limit discussions that harm productivity or otherwise disrupt work.
  4. Review your electronic communications and computer use policies to ensure that they mention that company computers and systems are for business related use only and that the use of systems for political campaigning is prohibited.
  5. Review your non-solicitation policy to ensure that it prohibits all forms of solicitation, including political campaigning, during work hours.

November will be here before we know it, and the results of the election may bring about even more heated, political debate. Perhaps the most important thing we can all do is create a culture of open dialogue and respect for differing opinions. If that fails, perhaps we teach our employees the art of knowing when to walk away!

 


 

[1] http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/political-talk-heats-up-the-workplace-according-to-new-careerbuilder-survey-300298209.html

[2] http://www.acc.com/legalresources/publications/topten/TopTenQuestionsRegardingPoliticalDialogueintheWorkplace.cfm

[3] http://www.hrexaminer.com/is-there-free-speech-at-work/

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