America is as politically polarized as it has been since the Civil War. Right versus left, Democrats versus Republicans, red versus blue, one thing is clear—everyone has an opinion, and it’s often a loud one.
Most employers, though, would prefer employees focus on work and not the state of the world when they are on the clock. So how can you quell political arguments in the workplace?
THE LAW: The First Amendment protects citizens against government action limiting free speech, but does not limit private employers’ actions. (Public employers, because they are arms of the government, have limited ways of curtailing political speech.)
Some 30 states have laws barring employers from regulating legal, off-duty employee activities.
Finally, the National Labor Relations Act guarantees employees’ rights to discuss working conditions without fear of employer reprisal.
WHAT’S NEW: The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has consistently sought to limit employer attempts to curb employee speech. When employers moved to discipline employees for statements made on social media, the NLRB backed employees as long as their statements dealt with workplace conditions.
On the other side of the coin, more companies are actively building grassroots political activities among employees and retirees. Their goal: persuading employees to lobby for legislation or elect candidates that help the company’s bottom line.
HOW TO COMPLY: When it comes to keeping your workplace civil in politically contentious times, you must balance employees’ interest in speaking freely with your interest in maintaining order and productivity.
In short, don’t put a complete gag order on all political discussions. Such a policy is impossible to enforce, plus it will choke morale and could actually open up your company to a lawsuit.
Instead, draft a policy that minimizes distractions, yet allows a certain amount of free speech. Then explain the policy to staff. Some tips:
1. Have a business reason for any restrictions. Limit only those political expressions that might affect productivity or customer relations. For example, you can ask a cashier to remove a “Legalize Marijuana” button, but you can’t ask an employee to remove a “John Smith for Senator” bumper sticker from his car.
2. Be consistent and evenhanded. Inconsistency is tough to defend in court. For example, don’t make employees remove pro-John Smith buttons, while allowing pro-Jane Doe ones.
3. Provide guidelines. Clearly tell employees that all workplace speech—political or otherwise—must be respectful, accommodating and tolerant of others’ views.
4. Don’t retaliate against off-duty political activity. In many states, employees are protected against discrimination, harassment or firing based on their after-hours political views and activities.
5. Never press employees to vote for a specific candidate. Almost every state forbids employers from using threats or employment consequence to influence an employee’s vote.
Also train managers and supervisors to steer workers back to work when political discussions become heated or distracting.
Further, political speech that is threatening or intimidating to religious, racial or ethnic minorities has no place in the workplace. Managers should be trained to recognize such speech and direct employees back to work.
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