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Political Discussions in the Workplace

Expressing oneself is a right afforded to every American, no matter where that expression takes place, right? When it comes to the workplace, the answer is: It depends.

Employers have a responsibility to promote inclusiveness and encourage respect among employees. Unfortunately, political expression can have the opposite effect. In certain instances, such as when an employee’s political expression disrupts or harms productivity in the workplace, private sector employers may choose to set this aside in the workplace.

The Polarizing Effects of Politics

It doesn’t take much for a political conversation to turn disruptive or disagreeable—watch any presidential debate. Allowing such discourse without regulation can quickly lead to workplace distractions and conflict. The last things employers need are employee division and productivity disruptions.

To complicate matters further, political conversations can weave into other potentially litigious topics, like gender and reproductive rights. Conversations that wade too far into certain topics can lead to potential discrimination or harassment claims.

Beyond interpersonal and legal ramifications, allowing overt expressions of disruptive employee political expression can reflect how the public views an employer. For instance, if employees in customer-facing roles distribute political materials on the job, those customers might ascribe that political affiliation with the company itself. Unchecked, this lack of image control can be especially damaging for employers and the company’s branding.

Legal Considerations

As the saying goes: people have a right to free speech, not a right to employment. In other words, private sector employees typically are free to express their views; there can be repercussions if doing so oversteps that which is bound by the workplace.

However, this doesn’t mean employers can simply retaliate against employees for expressing themselves. There are a number of factors to consider with regard to employee expression, including:

  • Whether the employer is private or public
  • Applicability of federal, state and local laws
  • Union status of the workplace
  • Company policy

There are instances in which speech is not protected, including when such speech interferes with employees’ workplace duties, creates workplace conflict or affects professionalism in the workplace, among others.

States have different protections for certain speech, leading to a complex web of competing employment laws. For this reason, employers should seek legal counsel when dealing with political expression in the workplace.

Employer Considerations

Employers in the private sector should consider their own standards for what conversations are inappropriate in the workplace. In fact, certain viewpoints may violate other workplace guidelines, like equal opportunity and anti-harassment policies.

Employers can remind employees of their workplace standards in a number of ways, including offering ongoing harassment training, circulating notices about inappropriate topics, inclusion and diversity training, handbook policies, or staff meetings. Further, employers are encouraged to establish and communicate clear expectations about their policies on political expression.

When creating workplace policies and procedures, employers must be careful to enforce their workplace standards on a consistent basis while staying in compliance with their local, state and federal laws. Disciplining multiple employees differently for similar inappropriate comments made could leave an employer open to a harassment or discrimination claim.

Lastly, employers must be careful to enforce their workplace standards uniformly. Disciplining one employee over another for similar comments could leave an employer open to a harassment or discrimination claim.

Conclusion

Conduct and professionalism in the workplace will always be a topic of discussion. Political speech adds a new layer to that topic, especially during presidential election years or when a controversial item is on the ballot. Employers have a responsibility to be in compliance with local, state and federal laws regarding an employee’s rights within the workplace, including political speech.

A company’s policies, including anti-harassment and equal employment opportunity policies, should be communicated to employees. Employees should be reminded on a consistent basis what the company policies are, including the expectation of treating their colleagues with professionalism.

For more straightforward information about employer best practices as the election draws closer, view the recent blog post, “Navigating Politics in the Workplace,” and visit OneDigital’s Election Hub 2020.

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