Given a particularly divisive political climate in the United States, many companies are grappling with whether and how to attempt to limit conversations about politics in the workplace. Some companies are also interested in channeling 2020 Election Day energy into supporting voter turnout efforts and providing nonpartisan voter education information and resources. This three-part blog series explains what employers and managers can do and what pitfalls they need to avoid.
Part I: Managing Workplace Political Conversations
A private employer generally has wide latitude to limit political expression in the workplace provided they do not run afoul of protected activity under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) or applicable state laws. However, it is nearly impossible to limit all political conversation in the workplace, and any attempt to do so may hurt morale or employee engagement. At the same time, without guidelines, political conversations can quickly become disruptive and devolve into activity that is not in line with company policies or behavioral expectations. Here are approaches to consider for dealing with political expression in the workplace; the right approach will ultimately depend on the employer’s specific situation and culture.
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Most Permissive: Allowing Political Discussion
Where a work environment has well-established norms around upholding an inclusive culture and respectful treatment of colleagues, an employer can often trust staff to be mindful of how they engage on hot button topics and address any related issues on an as-needed basis. However, given how divisive things are now, even if a company has laid the groundwork to ensure their culture is civil and respectful, it may prove useful to communicate some ground rules ahead of the election.
There is no way to guarantee that employees engage with civility, compassion, and measured language. An employer can, however, help set the stage by:
- Acknowledging that regardless of political party or beliefs, tensions are running high, and many team members may be feeling stress or fear related to the upcoming election.
- Reminding employees that the workplace is a place where everyone should feel safe, welcomed, respected, and included.
- Reminding managers that they should not assume that all employees share the same political beliefs.
- Communicating to employees that the company does not want to limit healthy dialogue about important social issues, but it also has a vested interest in reducing disruptions and maintaining a culture of respect.
- Redistributing company harassment, discrimination, and general conduct policies.
- Prohibiting comments about candidates (or anyone else) that are discriminatory or harassing based on the candidates’ or their supporters’ race, sex, national origin, religion, color, age, disability, or any other legally protected characteristic.
- Reminding employees that too much personal conversation of any kind can interfere with performance expectations. Even where an exchange is only a few minutes long, if it is divisive or disrespectful, it could result in a loss of productivity and damage to morale.
- Encouraging employees to be mindful of how and when they engage in conversation on political topics. Some people enjoy talking politics while others find it stressful and do not want to engage in political conversation at work.
- Encouraging employees to approach these conversations from a place of curiosity. Employees should attempt to understand the viewpoints of others, accepting that they may not find common ground. Conversation should be seen as an opportunity for better understanding, not a means to change someone’s mind.
- Setting guidelines for managers related to the election and political conversations, such as the ones at the end of this guide.
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Middle Ground: Prohibiting Certain Behaviors
Employers may want to limit but not eliminate the possibility of political discourse in the workplace. In this case, it may be enough to spell out specific activities that are off limits. For example:
- Distributing political materials in working areas or displaying campaign materials in employee workstations.
- Talking about political candidates in front of customers, vendors, or other workplace visitors.
- Discussing political candidates on company computers or internal communication channels (keep in mind that if employees are working from home, this will amount to a total ban).
- Prohibiting solicitation of money or support for political candidates or causes during work time.
Employers should avoid singling out topics to be avoided, such as “No discussing Black Lives Matter.” It is likely to create employee morale issues and could even give rise to a discrimination claim. Even with a neutral policy, such as “No discussing religion,” employers need to ensure they are consistent in enforcement. If an employer only disciplined employees who were arguing about Judaism but not employees talking about Sunday’s Mass, it would be discriminatory. General polices of civility and respect are safer and more effective.
Employers taking the middle ground approach should also provide the guidelines presented above for the most permissive workplace and make sure they are familiar with Section 7, discussed below in the most restrictive workplace discussion.
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Most Restrictive: Prohibiting Political Discussions
An employer is within its rights to attempt to ban almost all political discussions in the workplace (the exceptions are discussed below). That said, the risks of this approach are significant. A strict ban on talking politics in the workplace risks sending a message that an employer does not trust employees to use good judgment and engage with coworkers respectfully. It also fails to recognize the impact that current political and social issues have on employees.
Employers may also find it difficult to delineate what is considered political versus not political. What one person might consider an over-politicized issue may be very personal to someone else. For instance, prohibiting discussions about religious freedom, Black Lives Matter, and LGBTQ rights could feel like a prohibition on discussing an employee’s basic human experience. This can lead to feelings of exclusion and can potentially fuel claims of discrimination.
It is a common misconception that all speech is protected in all places, but the First Amendment right to free speech only protects people from having their speech limited by the government. Private employers are free to regulate speech in almost any way that does not conflict with Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.
Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act gives non-supervisory employees the right to discuss the terms and conditions of their employment at any time, in any forum (e.g., the break room, the sidewalk, Facebook, or Yelp).
This includes discussing:
- How much money they make, including any opinions about how their pay is impacted by race, national origin, sex, or their inclusion in any other protected class.
- Workplace safety, whether it relates to COVID-19, coming in to work during protests, specific hazards, or anything else safety related.
- Employer-required or recommended personal protective equipment.
- Treatment from management.
- Shift assignments.
- Anything related to unionizing.
While this law protects some political activities, it does not give employees the right to discuss politics that are not work-related during work hours.
Employers that intend to limit workplace conversations should learn about Section 7 of the NLRA since it is easy to violate if its protections are not fully understood. Employers should make it clear in their communications that the company does not prohibit conversations that would be protected under the NLRA and does not limit employees’ ability to engage in off-duty political activities, but may investigate off-duty conduct that violates company policy.
Stayed Tuned for Part II: Voting Leave, coming soon.