The risk of heated conflict and polarizing tension among employees will likely intensify as the 2016 U.S. presidential contest rolls into its final stretch before Election Day on Nov. 8.
Political discussions, like talking about social issues or events in the news, can hurt individual’s careers, hinder relationships among colleagues and create an unproductive and volatile work environment.
What can HR do if the divisive political discourse evidenced on cable news, talk radio and social media bleeds over into the workplace?
A majority of HR professionals (72 percent) in a recent SHRM poll said their organizations discourage political activities in the workplace, but only 24 percent have a written policy and 8 percent have an unwritten policy about political activities in the workplace.
Employers’ policies on political activities most commonly prohibit:
- Employees from campaigning for a candidate or political party during work hours.
- Employees from using their position to coerce a colleague to make political contributions or support a candidate or cause.
- The use of an employer’s assets to support a candidate or party.
A verbal warning (cited by 63 percent of respondents) and a written warning (46 percent) were the most common disciplinary actions for employees who violate a policy. Twenty-nine percent said termination also was a potential result.
Other measures to keep the political peace at work include:
- Setting the right tone. HR should set the example and remind managers to be mindful about commenting about politics or the election. A culture of respect for different opinions should also be emphasized and the company’s anti-harassment policy brought up prior to the election.
- Limiting political speech. While speech which touches on workplace conditions is considered protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act, most employers can discourage political discussions or talking about candidate preferences which are considered harassing to other employees or interfere with work. Employees should be advised to leave their political posters, t-shirts and pins, etc., at home and to be careful about expressing their political views at work or on social media, where colleagues can see it. Workers can be limited to discussing politics during their lunch hour or on breaks away from people who may be offended.
Labor Relations and Political Speech
An employer’s ability to prohibit free speech in the workplace depends on whether the employer is public or private. Generally speaking, public employees have the right to free speech while private employees generally do not. In most states, nonunionized private employers may prohibit political discussions at work if the speech is not about workplace conditions. HR would have to tread lightly in the case of someone saying that Candidate A is really great because she will offer more paid family leave.
Employers should remember that in many states, such as New York, it is unlawful to discipline employees for engaging in political discourse outside of the office, or for participating in political campaigns.
Each organization will need to account for its own particular situation to determine what is and is not appropriate, whether training is required for managers and staff, and whether policies need to be put in place to nip problems in the bud.
Legal counsel and third-party consultancies like CJC HR Services can be of great assistance as the election nears.