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FAQs: How should employers handle political discussions at work?

A toxic political climate and changing cultural norms are making it difficult to remove politics from the workplace. Employers who try to regulate or discourage this behavior must walk a fine line.

When former President Donald Trump announced that he would seek re-election all the way back in November 2022, Americans found themselves thrust into the longest campaign season of all time. This early start to the political calendar, lingering tensions from the 2020 election, and current events such as the wars in Ukraine and Israel have combined to create a challenging environment for employers who want to keep their workplace politics-free.

In the midst of this perfect storm for heated discussions, let’s review some frequently asked questions about what employers can, can’t, and should do:

Q: Do employers have the right to intervene in workplace speech?

It depends on the speech. First, it is important to note that employees do not have the same free speech rights at work as they do in their private lives. The First Amendment protects individuals from government interference, not interference from private companies. For example, employees can be disciplined for speech that violates employer policies, particularly when that speech engages in discrimination, harassment, or retaliation or otherwise violates policies addressing bullying, workplace violence, or workplace conduct. Second, employers have the ability to regulate the conduct of their employees while they are on the clock. This means that employers can stop employees from gossiping while they are supposed to be working or from interfering with other employees’ work time.

That being said, there are a number of limitations on what employers are able to regulate. Some states prohibit discrimination based on political affiliation. If an employer is seeking to discipline an employee for their behavior, they should make sure that the discipline is not based on political affiliation but on violation of a legitimate business policy.

For better or worse, employees do not have the same free speech rights at work as they do in their private lives.

Additionally, a number of states give employees rights to discuss their wages with co-workers without fear of discipline or retaliation. Moreover, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) prohibits private employers from interfering with employee rights to engage in concerted activity to improve the terms and conditions of their employment.

Finally, employers should take care to be consistent when limiting speech in the workplace. For example, if employers choose to allow employees to wear buttons supporting some political causes but not others, they may be creating an opportunity for a potential discrimination claim. Employers should review their policies for consistency and ensure that appropriate personnel are trained on the requirements.

Q: What do employees think about politics in the workplace?

A 2024 survey of 1,000 U.S. employees by ResumeHelp is one of best recent resources to reference when answering this question. 51% of respondents said that they never or rarely discuss politics at work and believe that such discussions hurt the workplace environment. 45% reported that they have regretted discussing politics at work in the past.

A clear gender divide was also observed among respondents. 57% of women reported feeling a negative impact from talking politics at work compared to only 44% of men. At 32% vs. 17%, men were much more likely to assert that discussing politics has a positive effect on the workplace. Significant generational differences were also observed, with millennial employees (ages 25 to 44) much more likely to talk about politics at work than employers from generation Z, generation X, or the baby boomer generation.

In addition to this, the survey found a sizeable minority who reported that politics has affected recruitment or retention outcomes:

  • 25% of people have decided not to apply to a company’s job listing because of the company’s political stance.
  • 37% of workers said that they know their current manager’s political affiliation.
  • 25% of people have either left a job or wanted to leave their job because of their manager’s political beliefs.
  • 59% believe their manager’s political beliefs influence their management style and/or decisions.

Q: When it comes to political discussions at work, what type of policy should thoughtful employers pursue?

It's impractical for an employer to believe that political discussions in the workplace aren’t going to happen. Politics is an integral part of many people's lives, and employees inevitably bring their beliefs and opinions to work. Given this reality, it becomes essential for employers to take a proactive approach in setting the parameters for respectful behavior during these discussions.

A well-crafted policy should explicitly prohibit any form of intolerance, ostracizing, bullying, harassment, or retaliation based on an employee’s political views. This is crucial because political beliefs can be deeply personal and can vary widely among employees. Without clear guidelines, there is a risk that political discussions could lead to conflicts or create a hostile work environment.

Policies regarding permissible speech at work should align with the company's culture and reflect its values and principles while also ensuring compliance with federal, state, and local laws. Such a policy serves as a guideline for employees, helping them understand what is acceptable and what is not, thus fostering a respectful and inclusive work environment.

Additionally, the policy should outline the consequences for violating these rules and provide a clear process for reporting and addressing grievances related to unprofessional discussions. By doing so, employees can feel secure in knowing that their concerns will be heard and addressed fairly.

Employers should also consider providing regular training sessions to educate employees on the importance of respectful communication and the impact of their words and actions. This can help prevent misunderstandings and promote a culture of mutual respect.

Looking for additional HR help? Learn about flexible third-party services by reading this post about Fractional HR Support.

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