As Election Day approaches, political passions are spilling over into the workplace. If not handled correctly, opposing viewpoints may become a source of tension and conflict among co-workers. Employers face the challenge of maintaining a tone of respect and cooperation in the workplace and not denying the civil rights of their employees.
“Politics in the workplace is a very big deal right now and will only get bigger as Election Day draws nearer,” said Howard Ross, founder and chief learning officer of Cook Ross Inc., a diversity and management consulting group in Silver Spring, Md. “Right now, the country is very polarized politically, and businesses don’t want that seeping into the office and polarizing their workforces.”
As most human resource professionals know, workplace conflicts can have a detrimental effect on productivity. “So, it is very much in the interest of employers to keep the workplace environment as congenial and civil as possible,” Ross said. “Therefore, it’s really up to the organization’s leaders to set the right tone -- a tone that respects differing political beliefs and the opinions of others.”
Diversity of opinion and ideas isn’t a bad thing; in fact, employers can treat the situation much like they handle multicultural diversity in their workplace. Treating every employee with dignity and respect is crucial to avoiding unwanted conflict and preventing acrimony, according to Ross and other sources for this article.
“Business leaders, with the help of HR, must set the tone and set expectations for the political season,” said Claudia St. John, president of Affinity HR Group LLC, a HR consulting firm located in Cazenovia, N.Y. “Then, you must communicate those expectations clearly to employees. Most employees are happy to follow the ground rules. [But] some people are going to be dead set on creating waves and bucking the system. However, this is probably indicative of another problem or situation that’s a bit more deep-seated than just differing political viewpoints.”
The legal ramifications
Employers should understand that, in the workplace, there are certain limits to employees’ constitutional right to free speech and expression.
“There is no absolute constitutional guarantee of free speech in a private workplace. That right is only guaranteed and applicable in public places and not privately owned businesses,” said Stephen Wheeless, a partner in the Phoenix law office of Stepoe & Johnson LLP.
Wheeless says the fact that free expression is constrained in private organizations is one of three key issues employers should understand—especially during hotly contested and potentially divisive election years.
According to Wheeless, there are two other key points:
• Understand and comply with any off-duty conduct laws that apply to your organizations and employees. Several states and many local municipalities have enacted laws that provide protections to employees during their off-duty hours.
• Know that under certain circumstances, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) may offer protections for political speech and expression, both at work and away from the workplace.
“There are many nuances of the NLRA that many employers either don’t know about or don’t understand clearly,” Wheeless said. “When the political atmosphere starts to heat up, especially during election years, it’s a very good idea if employers and their HR officers seek the advice and input from their legal counsels.”
According to Wheeless, an employer is well within their rights to stop employees’ political discussions if they are talking about their support for a certain candidate or disparaging the political stances of others; however, all that changes if the political speech is tied to the workers’ employment situation.
“If an employee says: ‘I support candidate X, because if he or she is elected then we will receive better pay, more flexible hours and better retirement benefits,’ then that type of political expression could be protected under the NLRA,” Wheeless said. “Therefore, if your employees are talking politics in terms of the conditions of employment, and they aren’t disrupting work during normal business hours, then that could be a protected activity under the NLRA.”
A major wrinkle
Since the presidential election of 2008, social media use has grown dramatically. Social media could be the hottest management issue and one of trickier challenges that employers face. The upcoming 2012 presidential election complicates further a very complex issue for businesses, according to all the sources for this article.
“Social media has become so much a part of our lives and the way we communicate, and political comments and views are often expressed on social media sites,” said Ross. “So my advice to employers is again to set the tone and expectations of how employees should communicate and treat each other—even online. And if an employee complains about a co-worker’s personal political statements or comments on Facebook or Twitter, then suggest that the employee refrain from reading those posts.”
In addition, Ross recommends that employers should not try to overreach and create policies and standards that can’t be enforced.
“If you can’t enforce it, then employees will understand that, and the policy or rule essentially becomes a useless and futile gesture,” he said. “Also, be reasonable when setting expectations or policies. Draconian measures are never constructive and usually just generate resentment and distrust, and that’s exactly the type of atmosphere you want to discourage and avoid.”
Wheeless agrees with Ross that the tone of respect and reason is the best way to approach the situation. He says that there’s no law prohibiting employers from disciplining or even firing an employee for discussing politics at work (except in cases in which the NLRA might intervene); however, a more reasonable and understanding approach to managing political discussions at work will help to strengthen employee relations.
“Once you start firing people, because of their political stances, then you’re going to upset others and morale will plummet,” Wheeless said.
Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM.
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