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How to Handle Employees Discussing Politics in the Workplace

by Tim AustinOctober 29, 2020 8:00 AM

As politics become more polarizing, small businesses can get stuck in an uncomfortable position. For every employee who can express political beliefs without creating any issues within the workplace, certain conduct can have a direct impact on your business.

Managing political discussions in the workplace is a tricky balancing act. On one hand, different opinions and an open culture can create new relationships and creative ideas. On the other hand, certain discussions can create animosity between individuals that fractures company morale and impacts productivity. Employers must also consider potential legal protections for political speech. 

With all these factors, it’s easy to view political debates in the workplace as ticking time bombs for your business. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to manage political discussion in the workplace and protect your business.

A group of employees arguing after discussing politics in the workplace. 

Understand Your Legal Responsibilities Regarding Political Discussion

Before you can take measures to handle political activity within the workplace, it’s essential to understand what you can and can’t do in terms of managing political discussions as an employer. Certain regulations may limit your potential options for preventing problems created by heated political discussions, so it’s critical to stay compliant with existing local and federal laws.

One of the most notable potential concerns about limiting political discussion in the workplace is the First Amendment. According to the National Law Review, “in most states, employees of private companies are not protected from discrimination based purely on political affiliation or activity.” While the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting free speech, private employers are generally able to set their own rules regarding acceptable speech. This means that small business owners do have some control over what can be said in workplace scenarios.

Of course, there are some notable exceptions to what private employers can prohibit in terms of political talk. To start, the National Labor Relations Act allows private employees to discuss labor-related issues, such as wages and hours. This also extends to topics like working conditions and unionization, which some may construe as political. 

Certain states and cities also have laws in place to protect political expression. Employers should not be seen as taking any measures to discriminate against employees for their political or voting activities. In addition, many states and cities disallow employers from influencing their employees’ political decisions as well. These rules can vary by state or city, so you’ll need to review your local laws to see if your business is affected by any of the following: 

  • Laws to prohibit employers from retaliating against employees for engaging in “political activities.”
  • Laws to protect employees’ right to express “political opinions.”
  • Laws to disallow discrimination against employees based on party membership or engagement in election-related speech and political activities.

What Small Businesses Can Do to Manage Political Discussions in the Workplace

While existing laws create some limitations in terms of what you can and can’t prohibit, there are measures you can take to manage political debates among employees without leaving yourself in legal trouble.

Create policies against discrimination that apply to all employee groups

One major point of contention in political discussions gone wrong is when one or more employees view another worker’s words or actions as discriminatory. One person’s opinion may seem like harassment to another, which can create serious internal concerns. 

While you may not be able to cleanly parse through people’s opinions, you can institute anti-discrimination and harassment policies to snuff out any egregious behavior inside and out of political discussions in the workplace and online. These policies can make it clear where your business stand when it comes to discrimination against:

  • Race
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Religion
  • Ethnicity/nationality
  • Disability/medical history
  • Marriage/civil partnership
  • Pregnancy/maternity/paternity
  • Gender identity /sexual orientation

You should also make it clear how employees can safely report harassment in the workplace. Employers are obligated to take any harassment or discrimination claims seriously and investigate all employee complaints. If you deem that any political discussion devolved into harassment involving the aforementioned protected characteristics, you can use that as grounds to resolve the situation quickly and effectively, whether that’s a warning to the offending party or further punishment.

It’s also important to make sure that these policies are equally applied for all employees. Every individual should be held to the same standards when it comes to discussing politics at work whether they are an entry-level employee or an executive.

Have a policy to limit or ban visual political displays

Political discussions don’t need casual conversations to become an issue. Visual displays such as posters, stickers, or campaign buttons can trigger unwanted conversations unless you put a policy in place to prevent these problems.

While certain topics are protected, employers are able to ban political clothing or items on work premises. Whether the message displayed on a coffee mug, bumper sticker, or other item is positive or negative in nature, you can limit or completely prohibit these visual displays in your office or other work areas. In turn, these items won’t be able to instigate any unwanted political discussions.

It’s also important to remember that these visual displays can extend to accidental sources as well. For example, office televisions can create an unwanted situation if you’re not careful. Be careful which types of television programs play to prevent accidental conversation starters – depending on the current political climate, it may be best to turn off these sources altogether.

Dissuade against touchy subjects

While difficult subjects can create meaningful conversations, there are certain topics that can quickly devolve into heated arguments. It’s best not to call out these topics in any policies – doing so may only call more attention to them for certain individuals. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t try to diffuse any situations involving hot button issues at work.

If a debate involving a touchy political subject arises on a public platform at work, make sure that your or some other HR representative steps in to pacify the situation. You want to make it clear that while you don’t want to hinder anyone’s political beliefs, the employees must maintain a friendly work environment and that their current discussion is creating conflict. If the employees have any concerns or continuing issues, you and any other HR representatives can meet with them in private to determine a solution that’s fair for everyone involved.

Protect Your Business from Uncomfortable Situations

While you can’t necessarily eliminate political discussions in the workplace, you can help limit unwanted conversations that can negatively impact your business. By setting clear, consistent policies and creating a healthy workplace environment, you can help your employees thrive even if they don’t necessarily agree on certain viewpoints.

Of course, it’s not always easy to create and maintain comprehensive policies and oversee any disputes in the workplace. As the owner of a small business, those responsibilities can fall to you. Fortunately, GMS can help take this burden off your shoulders. Our experts can work with you to create compliant policies and protect your business. Contact GMS today to talk to one of our experts about how we can make your business simpler, safer, and stronger.

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