With a politically polarizing presidential election just a few months away, and the Supreme Court’s historic decision upholding the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, many voters are exercising their First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expressing their political opinions at work. But how outspoken should employees be in the workplace?
Few, if any, employers want to discourage political expression, yet the reality is that political disagreements often have a way of exceeding polite boundaries and can produce bruised feelings and an uncomfortable atmosphere. An inflamed argument can disrupt work flow, impede productivity and weaken team interactions. In extreme cases, it even can lead to bullying.
Although employers cannot (and should not) legislate what employees discuss, they should consider taking steps to ensure that employees remain civil and calm during discussions and everyone’s views are respected. Below are points of information and suggestions to help maintain a respectful and productive work environment without inhibiting political expression:
- Employers should establish a clear policy regarding what political activities are permitted in the workplace, communicate it with all employees, and enforce the policy consistently.
- Employers or managers should not request information about an employee's political affiliation, nor can they threaten workers, fire them, or take disciplinary action against employees who exercise their right to vote.
- Employers should emphasize that political conversations not impact workplace productivity in any way. Conversations should take place during lunch hours or office breaks, preferably away from areas where other employees are working.
- With regard to campaigning for a particular candidate, the law allows companies to author policies restricting the solicitation and distribution of non-work-related activities in the office, including political campaigning. Once a policy is enacted, it must be applied in a consistent manner, and all employees must follow the same guidelines.
- Employers should restrict or prohibit political garb and accessories, such as shirts, caps, banners and campaign buttons supporting a specific candidate. Visual images can provoke just as much (if not more) debate than spoken words.
- Employers must remember to support diversity and inclusion of all views, while at the same time respect employees’ boundaries and enforce policies fairly and equally.
Ultimately, political discussions are bound to happen in the workplace, regardless of the industry or the geographic location of the business. Employers who recognize this and take steps to address political discussions before they get out of hand will be better positioned to maintain a positive, productive work environment.
Rick Gibbs, SPHR, is a performance specialist in the New York offices of Insperity. Insperity (NYSE: NSP), a trusted advisor to America’s best businesses for more than 25 years, provides an array of human resources and business solutions designed to help improve business performance. For more information, call (800) 465-3800 or visit www.insperity.com.