In a few short months, Americans will cast their ballots for the next President of the United States. Until then, we will be inundated with sounds and images from the campaign trail. This campaign season will provide many sound bites that employees will repeat around the water cooler. In a lively political environment, supervisors may want to pay special attention to employee actions and conversations in order to maintain productivity and a healthy working environment.
Many organizations, both public and private, have policies that limit an employee’s on-duty political activities. These policies often prohibit the use of the employer’s property for political purposes and limit political messages (including signs, buttons and banners) and soliciting for contributions. Employers are typically very careful not to overreach by trying to limit an employee’s off-duty activities, including efforts to run for elective office. However, if an employee is representing the company or wearing apparel with the company logo while engaging in political activities, the employer may have the right to take action.
In the workplace, employers may dictate the on-duty activities of employees, but on-duty opinions are another matter, particularly when they give rise to political discussions. Many organizations recognize the value of diversity in the workforce and understand that it includes more than culture but also diversity of experiences, genders, age, and perspectives. Managed well, it can foster creativity and innovation. Managed poorly, it can create a very uncomfortable work environment.
Ahead of the 2012 presidential election, a CareerBuilder survey reported that 36 percent of workers discussed politics at work. Twenty-three percent of those reported they had experienced a heated political discussion. Just think about the repercussions in your workplace if almost a quarter of your employees were engaged in heated political discussions. The fallout could have serious consequences! So what can you do?
- Train managers and supervisors – It is important that supervisors not allow their own political views to influence how they treat employees. When supervisors share their political views, employees may fear reprisal if their opinions differ. Supervisors need to know how to encourage a workplace where employees are respectful of one another and demonstrate civility. Employers benefit when supervisors are able to encourage the free exchange of ideas but head off discussions that might cause discomfort. Supervisors need to know when to intervene in conversations and when intervention is inappropriate.
- Intervene when language is discriminatory – Employers have an obligation to curtail speech that demonstrates discrimination, particularly as it relates to protected classes such as gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation. Speech that violates harassment and/or discrimination laws is never protected. Even if employees are simply repeating inappropriate campaign rhetoric, supervisors must step in.
- Slow down discussions when they interfere with work performance – Discussions that take up too much work time and/or distract employees from getting their work done should be stopped. Supervisors should get involved and make sure that employees maintain their focus on getting work done. When deciding whether discussions are a distraction, supervisors should pay attention to the impact they are having on meeting performance standards.
- Be careful of working condition discussions – Although private-sector employees do not have a constitutional right to freedom of speech at work, this is not true in the public sector. That being said, if private-sector employees are talking about working conditions like pay, work hours, and equipment, protections may apply. For public employers, discussions regarding issues of public concern may be protected.
If issues or questions arise regarding politics in the workplace, MSEC’s HR professionals and attorneys are here to help assess situations and provide guidance.