With the heated political climate of recent years, casual conversations can easily veer into destructive and divisive exchanges. It’s challenging enough to manage this dynamic among friends and family, but what if it arises in the workplace? Approximately 26% of Americans admit to talking politics in the workplace at least 15 minutes per workweek.
Unfortunately, when discussions go awry — and opinions and emotions are running high — workplace morale and productivity can suffer. Furthermore, unruly discussions could trigger claims of a “hostile” work environment for anyone involved, including bystanders.
As a business owner or manager, what can you do to establish appropriate boundaries regarding political exchanges? And how should you handle the tricky situations that may emerge when employees openly discuss politics in the workplace?
Start with a Carefully Crafted Policy
Contrary to what many people believe, the Constitutional right to free speech does not apply in most workplaces. As a private employer, you are free to set rules around political talk and politically motivated activities.
While you may not want to ban all political discussion outright, you can create policies that discourage politically charged discussions and prohibit the display or distribution of political materials, for example. The key is to keep your policies neutral, where you’re not singling out certain political views or only enforcing a policy from one perspective. It’s also important to have a formal policy against unlawful harassment and discrimination, which can easily be violated when political topics are raised.
Examples of Political Conflicts in the Workplace
Having clear policies in place can go a long way, but issues can still arise. Here’s how to handle the most common conflicts surrounding political talk at work.
- An employee complains about a political comment she overheard outside her cubicle
The proper response to this depends on your policies: Are you prohibiting all political discussions, or just those that become disruptive? Are employees allowed to discuss politics during work hours, or only on breaks? If the person in question is violating a documented policy, you can approach him/her about it and revisit the workplace rules.
If your policies aren’t that strict, tell the employee who reported the problem that it’s within your staff’s rights to discuss politics, as long as it’s respectful and doesn’t cross over into discriminatory comments. You might encourage the employee to politely ask her coworker to take the conversation elsewhere, but you can’t discipline an employee just for holding a differing view from a colleague in an adjacent cubicle or office. In this scenario, it’s best to reference your policies first, then determine whether the situation requires additional follow-up.
- An employee claims he’s being harassed for his political beliefs
This situation is more serious than someone feeling uncomfortable about political banter within earshot. As an employer, you’re responsible for keeping your work environment safe and free of hostility. This includes protecting employees from being badgered or bullied by politically driven coworkers. For this reason, a verbal reprimand may be in order. (Keep in mind that political affiliation is not a protected class under federal law, but some states DO prohibit this type of discriminatory behavior.)
Even more serious is when the discussion leads to comments about race, national origin, sex, age, religion or other federally protected classes. With the ongoing focus on topics such as immigration, health care and foreign policy, it’s easy to see how a heated discussion can be perceived as discriminatory or hostile toward a particular group of people. Should this be the case, your best course of action is to investigate the situation thoroughly and, if warranted, issue a written warning to the harassing employee.
If disruptive behavior continues after an initial conversation, take additional disciplinary action, up to and including firing the offending employee if the problem persists
- You observe a questionable interaction between an employee and supervisor
Beyond establishing a general policy for all employees, you should discourage managers and supervisors in particular from talking about politics, especially with subordinates. This protects both your employees and your company; otherwise, a discrimination claim could be made against the manager.
Also, with any political matter in the workplace, it’s important to address the disruption and not punish the perspective, which could appear discriminatory. If you’re having more issues than normal surrounding political discussions, consider redistributing your policies regarding harassment, discrimination and political expression in the workplace.
Set the Tone with Appropriate Workplace Training
For managers and employees alike, it’s a good idea to conduct targeted diversity and inclusion training. An expert-developed program reinforces ways to reduce tension and unconscious biases in the workplace, which contributes to a more cohesive and respectful team environment.
First Amendment in the Workplace: Can Employees Really Say Anything They Want?
Is Employee Conduct Outside the Workplace Open to Discipline?