Upcoming presidential elections create some workplace challenges

BY Bill Leonard

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.

Have HR-related questions and concerns? Get access to essential forms, policies and guides, plus a live call center, at, powered by HCN and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). 


Leave a Reply

No comments found



How concerned are you that a trade war could hurt your business?

Obama or Romney? Contractors express their views

BY Brae Canlen

A survey of licensed contractors by BuildZoom, a matchmaking service for consumers and contractors, indicated a preference for presidential candidate Mitt Romney by a wide margin. 

When asked who would make a better president, nearly 75% of respondents named Mitt Romney over Barack Obama as their choice. Their reason was based, primarily, on the economy, including job creation, taxation, the budget deficit and general economic growth

Respondents were asked to justify their response, and a closer analysis of their responses revealed two major themes amongst Romney supporters, according to BuildZoom. First, contractors generally felt that Romney had more business experience, which would translate into better results for the U.S. economy. Second, contractors were driven by general dissatisfaction with Obama.

Of the 26% who chose Obama over Romney, these contractors pointed to Obama’s character while also expressing their belief in Obama’s empathy for the middle class. Several respondents also expressed concern with Romney’s “Wall Street” background.

The survey represents feedback from 237 licensed contractors, registered on BuildZoom. Almost half (49%) stated that their party affiliation was Republican. Of the remainder, 12% were Democrats, 33% were Independents, 5% listed Tea Party, and 1% said they were Libertarians.

Contractors were also asked to evaluate how the Recovery Act has benefited the construction industry. Nearly half (47%) reported that the Recovery Act hasn’t helped at all, while 33% responded that it has helped "a little."

A majority of contractors (77%) reported that they had not been provided with enough information on how to take advantage of Recovery Act opportunities. The general sentiment seemed to be that the Recovery Act primarily helped larger businesses. According to one respondent, “I need more information about how it can help a small construction business. I know it has helped put laborers back to work for the big prime contractors and mid-size contractors.”


Leave a Reply

g.kittel says:
Oct-09-2012 09:16 pm

Easy to say recovery act
Easy to say recovery act hasn't helped but alot of homes were sold because of the Homebuyer Tax credit in 08, 09 and 2010 and that benefited all in the industry, my guess is things would have been worse without it, shouldn't forget that.



How concerned are you that a trade war could hurt your business?

3M realigns business structure

BY HBSDealer Staff

3M has announced a realignment of its major business groups to better serve global markets and customers, effective immediately.

The new structure will be comprised of five business groups: Consumer (2011 sales of $4.2 billion), Industrial ($9.6 billion), Health Care ($5.0 billion) and two newly formed business groups: Safety & Graphics ($5.5 billion), and Electronics & Energy ($5.7 billion). Previously, the company operated six segments. 

“The change is a natural outcome of our strategy to increase relevance to our customers and to broaden our presence in the markets we serve,” said Inge Thulin, 3M chairman, president and CEO. “By building scale more broadly, we create critical mass in each business group to take full advantage of innovation and commercialization opportunities.”

The company also announced new leadership roles for many of its senior leaders. 

Segment reporting for the new organization is effective Jan. 1, 2013.

Electronics & Energy will now be led by executive VP Mike Kelly, former head of 3M’s Display and Graphics business. The new business group includes the following operating divisions:

• 3M Touch Systems
• Communication Markets
  Electrical Markets
• Electronic Solutions
• Electronics Markets Materials
• Infrastructure Protection
• Mobile Interactive Solutions
• Optical Systems
• Renewable Energy

Safety & Graphics will now be led by executive VP Julie Bushman, former head of 3M’s Safety, Security and Protection Services business. The new business group includes the following operating divisions:

• Architectural Markets
• Building & Commercial Services
• Commercial Graphics
• Industrial Mineral Products
• Mining, Oil & Gas Solutions
• Occupational Health & Environmental Safety
• Security Systems
• Traffic Safety Systems

Industrial, led by executive VP Brad Sauer, remains unchanged, with the exception of Renewable Energy moving to Electronics & Energy. Sauer formerly led 3M’s Health Care business.

Health Care, led by executive VP Joaquin Delgado, is unchanged. Delgado formerly led 3M’s Electro and Communications business.

Consumer is also unchanged and will continue to be led by executive VP Mike Vale.

Chris Holmes has been named senior VP corporate supply chain operations, succeeding John Woodworth, who announced his intention to retire. Holmes was formerly executive VP of Industrial and Transportation business.


Leave a Reply

No comments found



How concerned are you that a trade war could hurt your business?