New Administration, New Conflicts: Effective Ways To Prevent Political Strife At Work

Contributed by Jaime Lizotte, HR Solutions Manager,  ComplyRight

If the polls are correct, we are a nation divided. And that means your employees are probably divided, too. Heated discussions around the water cooler about healthcare, women’s causes and the travel ban are all too common.

This places employers in a tricky situation. You want your workers to be comfortable expressing themselves — but you also have a right to a peaceful, productive work environment. To complicate matters further, these topics being debated can easily cross the line into harassment.

So what can you do to protect your business? What is acceptable under the law?

Political Expression at Work 

It’s true that employees have a right to freedom of speech, but it’s also true that the very same protection is limited in the workplace. Many people wrongly assume that the U.S. constitution entitles them to express their views whenever and wherever they like. But private employers typically are not required to let free speech ring throughout the workplace. In addition, managers have the right to discipline at-will employees who disrupt the workplace with their political views.

So should you simply ban all political discussions and activity in the workplace and save everyone a lot of trouble? Well, experts say no. It’s not realistic and it’s not good for morale. And by banning all political discussion, you’re just asking for it to be discussed more than ever.

Calming Political Unrest

Employees should not be permitted to participate in any political activity that interferes or disrupts the workplace in any way. That being said, you need guidelines to help minimize workplace disruption and reduce the risk of lawsuits.

Here are some recommended actions you can take to keep the peace. 

DO discipline disruptions but don’t punish perspectives. In other words, emphasize the way employees express themselves but not what they express.

DO adopt a no-solicitation, no-distribution rule that limits soliciting support and distributing literature about non-work activities – including political campaigning. This policy should be included in your handbook.

DO allow employees to discuss their political views in the workplace on their own time – such as in the lunchroom on breaks. There is nothing wrong with coworkers chatting about current events and sharing opinions. But a friendly conversation that deteriorates into an angry debate – with name-calling or raised voices – should never be tolerated.

DO implement an open-door approach on how your employees are managed, encouraging employees to raise concerns as soon as possible using established channels.

DO be careful when engaging subordinates in political debates. You don’t want to leave yourself open to a discrimination lawsuit by discussing political opinions related to racial, gender or religious issues.

DO adopt and enforce a well-crafted and well-communicated anti-harassment policy that explains that harassment on the basis of any protect class will not be tolerated.

The Bottom Line

Freedom of expression is essential, especially if you want a workplace that honors diversity, encourages new ideas and allows room for respectful disagreement. However, implementing and communicating clear policies restricting political activities can help prevent workplace conflicts, hurt feelings and even employee lawsuits.

Jaime Lizotte is HR Solutions Manager of  ComplyRight, which creates practical solutions to help employers streamline administrative tasks and simplify compliance with federal, state and local labor laws.

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