In an election year, talking politics at work may be hard to avoid. This situation may be even more difficult during a presidential campaign, which may trigger strongly held and divisive opinions.
It's unrealistic for employers to hope that all such discussions will never occur in the workplace and that your place of business is immune to the emotions stirred by well-meaning people with diametrically opposed political views.
So, what's the best approach for employers to handle the tricky issue of talking politics at work? Here are some key points to keep in mind:
"Free Speech" is Not Relevant in Private Workplaces
Employees, like all Americans, are entitled to free speech under the First Amendment of the US Constitution. However, as employment law attorney Melissa Healy points out, "there is no blanket right of 'free speech' in a private workplace." The First Amendment pertains to "state action," Healy explains.
However, a policy that prohibits political discussion may violate the National Labor Relations Act. Additionally there may be state or local laws that protect political discussions.
Set a Policy of Civility and Respect
Employers can't easily monitor election-related topics from coming up in the cafeteria, while employees are on break, etc. But employees should be reminded that your company endorses diversity in outlook and absolutely will not tolerate angry, abusive, or violent expressions of opinions. Employees aren't permitted to harass or bully others into accepting their views on any topic. Employees should not promote their chosen candidate or an individual ballot measure while working or act disrespectfully if a fellow employee's beloved candidate loses at the polls.
Remind employees that complaints about harassment, or retaliation, will be thoroughly investigated.
Remind Employees of Potentially Negative Effects
Employees may not realize it, but an atmosphere in which politics is argued can be unpleasant for everyone, including those with no stake in the discussions. Prolonged political analysis can stifle productivity, dampen workplace morale and—worst of all—cut into your company's revenues. Additionally, it is inappropriate for employees to have such discussions in the presence of customers.
Model the Behavior from the Top
It's permissible, if not desirable, to establish behavioral guidelines that include managers and senior executives as well. Train managers and executives regarding your policies and what to do if they see political discussions getting out of hand or impacting productivity.
As a best practice, business owners should be completely circumspect about their personal political beliefs. It's one thing to privately donate money to a preferred campaign and quite another to announce it in the company newsletter.
In general, there's not much benefit in trying to impose specific guidelines forbidding political talk at work. You can, however, communicate to the entire workforce that co-workers must be respected. Everyone wants to spend their days in a happy and productive environment, and this doesn't include shouting matches concerning a recent campaign speech or even jokes about a candidate's personal appearance. This clear-cut and respectful stance should hopefully be easy for everyone to understand and to agree upon.