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Water-cooler politics: Limit trouble, but allow free speech

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John Kerry and George Bush aren't the only people embroiled in political debates this month. So are some of your employees. And, with the country at war, conversations will turn especially heated this year.

Some employers try to quell such distraction by putting a gag order on political speech. Our advice: That's not a smart move. A no-political-talk policy is impossible to enforce; plus, you'll choke morale and could open your organization to a lawsuit.

Still, employers have the legal right to control employees' activities on the job. That includes stopping political activism and solicitations. Don't let employees use the First Amendment as an excuse to say anything they want. While the Constitution says the government can't stifle employees' free-speech rights, it doesn't restrict private employers from setting such limits.

Where you can run into trouble, however, is if your organization retaliates against an employee because of his or her political expression. Why? Because protecting em-ployees' freedom of political expression remains an important "public policy" concern, on par with protecting employees who perform jury duty.

Best bet: Draft a policy that minimizes distractions while allowing free speech. Explain the policy to staff. Two tips:

1. Cite a business reason for actions. Restrict only those political expressions that might affect productivity or customer relations. For example, you can ask a cashier to remove a campaign button.

2. Be consistent and evenhanded. Inconsistency is always tough to defend in court. For example, don't make employees take off pro-Kerry buttons, while allowing pro-Bush ones.

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