Politics in the Workplace

Politics in the Workplace

Politics in the WorkplaceIf you watch television, listen to the radio, surf the internet, drive on the streets — pretty much if you’re alive and awake — you know that we are smack dab in the midst of the political election season.

A survey performed by the American Management Association revealed that:

  • 35% of employees are uncomfortable discussing political views at work
  • 25% are neutral
  • 39% are comfortable

Most of us spend as much time with our co-workers as we do with our family and friends, and often our co-workers become an important part of our social network.  With 64% of employees comfortable or unconcerned about politics in the office, it is inevitable that discussion is going to crop up in the workplace.

When politics enter the workplace, things can get ugly — and companies can find themselves in real trouble!

Employers must consider the role of politics in their workplaces:

As we maneuver through the next few weeks, the questions that we as employers need to ask ourselves are:

  • How much political debate should we allow?
  • Should politics enter our workplace at all?
  • Is it appropriate, or perhaps even helpful, for employees to discuss politics?
  • Can management express their views?
  • When does a political discussion veer into potential liability for the company?
  • Do employees have free speech rights regarding political expression?

When politics & the workplace collide:

We are already hearing stories about problems with politics mixing in the workplace.  And, as is often the case with politics, the allegations are equal against both sides.

In Ohio, workers at Century Mine claim they had to give up a day’s pay to attend a Romney campaign event and they feared that if they didn’t attend they would be fired.

On the other hand, in Seattle the FAA is investigating claims that managers told employees at a staff meeting to vote Democrat in upcoming elections or there would be budget cuts and their jobs would be threatened.

Don’t you just love the political season?

Politics & freedom of speech in the workplace:

Do employees have a free speech right in the workplace to express their political views?  The answer is no:  in the private sector, free speech rights do not extend to employees and politics.

Employers do have the right to control these topics of discussion, which have the potential of harming work relationships, creating a hostile work environment, offending customers, and opening up a company to claims of discrimination.

The impact of political discussions at work:

Workplace political discussions can violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act: As employees discuss candidates and issues, it opens up an opportunity for someone to say, “I won’t vote for him because he’s black,” or “I just can’t see a Mormon as president.”  These two comments are simply inappropriate in the workplace, violating Title VII.

As managers hear inappropriate comments, or discussions that become heated or uncomfortable, they must quickly and firmly step in.  If they don’t, the company may very well be held liable.

Political hot topics can make for risky workplace conversations:  Beyond discussion of the candidates themselves, the presidential race has us talking about other subjects that touch on race, gender, age and even religious beliefs.  Immigration reform, women’s health and abortion rights, poverty, health care, sex education, social safety nets — these are all hot topics during campaign season.  And they are all topics that walk a very fine line between acceptable and unacceptable grist for office conversations!

A divisive political environment can create an angry workplace:  These are divisive times.  The past decade has seen the political landscape become intensely, even bitterly partisan.  It is not uncommon for people with a clear-cut allegiance to one party to feel a measure of anger towards members of the opposing party.

The unrest and wars in the middle east, the credit and housing crises, the cost of oil, the unemployment rate, the environment — these are powerful subjects with a very current and immediate impact on the lives of all Americans.  Inevitably, most people’s opinions about these issues (and who is to blame for them) are colored by their political affiliations.  It is extremely easy for any discussion of current events to devolve into impassioned finger-pointing.

Protect your company by creating a politics policy:

Companies are wise to put guidelines in place for management and staff, in order to create a healthy environment where diversity is encouraged, employees’ opinions and differences are respected, and the company is protected.  As always, it is critical that good policies are in place in an Employee Handbook, and that employees are made aware of the company’s policies.

There are several approaches a company can take to create this environment.  Some of the components of the policy might include policies that prohibit:

  • Political comments made to the public or customers
  • Wearing any shirts, hats, buttons, etc. that make political statements
  • Using company computers for disseminating any political information, including jokes, videos, etc., which can be offensive to others

Managers must be trained to appropriately handle politics:

Equally important as having a good policy is for managers to be trained in how to conduct themselves and to respond to complaints.

Subordinates who overhear or who are drawn into discussions about politics by their supervisor may feel forced into expressing similar views.  This can potentially lead to a claim of a hostile work environment.

Sometimes businesses favor a candidate who they feel will benefit their company or industry.  The Federal Election Commission (FEC) governs how corporations may disseminate candidate endorsements and campaign information to their employees.  If your company favors a particular candidate, make sure all of your managers understand the FEC’s regulations.

The wrap-up:

The bottom line is that all of these potentially prickly conversations essentially boil down to whether or not candidates are capable of and qualified to perform their jobs.  For many of us, these discussions unexpectedly help us challenge long-held biases we don’t even know we harbor.

Many employers believe that discussing current events and topics of interest builds morale and helps employees to develop relationships with their co-workers.  Additionally, many companies encourage their employees to be civic minded and to be part of their community, which includes being informed voters.

Political discussions in the workplace don’t have to be troublesome, but they are tricky, and require a company to keep tabs on their content and tenor, to ensure they don’t create liability or strife.

Originally published in the Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal.

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