Political talk in the workplace typically heats to a boiling point at this time every four years. The closeness of the Romney-Obama race is stirring the pot even more this year.
For employers, your goal in these final couple of weeks is to 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, will choke morale and could actually open up your company to a lawsuit.
Instead, create some rules that minimize distractions, yet allow 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-Obama buttons, while allowing pro-Romney ones.
3. Discourage bosses from talking politics with subordinates. A poor choice of words, such as statements about the gender, race or any other protected characteristic of a candidate, could be used by an employee as indirect evidence of discrimination. Plus, bosses should never treat employees with whom they agree better than those they don’t.
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.
6. Know 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.
Finally, although it may be almost impossible to stop the political chitchat among employees, you can prevent disruptions by requiring employees to limit such discussions to nonworking times and nonworking areas. Plus, you can hold such conversations to policy standards (no profanity, no threats, no hate talk, etc.).