Political Discussion in the Workplace – A Practical Approach

Given that it’s an election season, and in particular a very animated campaign season, several business owners have come to me for guidance on the subject of whether or not to allow, curtail or outright ban any political discussion in the workplace.

Although it could be a rather complex subject given concerns on all sides regarding First Amendment freedoms, workplace collegiality, productivity, and a host of other potential workplace issues, my guidance has been to simply allow common sense to prevail. One would hope that similar counsel would be given to the candidates themselves, but that’s a discussion for a different day. Regarding employment law on the subject, private sector employers are given a fair amount of leeway with regard to their company policies. Therefore, the full spectrum of ‘allowableness’ is in play for these employers.

I actually favor a more pragmatic approach for businesses. Much like any current event of the day, some political discourse amongst employees is bound to occur at work as an outgrowth of their day to day work-life balance. Unless the situation has already come under scrutiny from employees going overboard, attempting a full-stop, zero tolerance policy is unlikely to either be completely enforceable or garner favor with staff. That said, in keeping with the idea of opposite sides of the political spectrum, here are two approaches to the subject that cover opposing sides of “allowability”:

The common sense approach that political discussion is allowed with some limits, goes something like this:

Set expectations with staff during your next all-hands or through a brief memo. Make it clear that while workplace discussion of current events is permissible, several key aspects must be adhered to. Those include respectfulness of divergent views and of those who choose to not engage in discussion at all. Also, these casual discussions must not impact the timely execution of the firm’s goals and objectives. Furthermore, for those companies that have workplace dress or adornment policies (who can hang what on the cubicle walls), a reminder may be in order on what is allowed and what is not. And naturally, any inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated and treated with all the seriousness of any workplace harassment concern.

On the other hand, a more restrictive approach to the subject of workplace political discussion, could include any or all of the following:

Again, and for this approach in particular, it is critical to communicate with your employees why you are implementing this type of restrictive policy. Here, I do favor a brief all-hands to discuss, with a hand-out that contains the do’s-and-don’ts for reference. Some restrictions that are absolutely OK in the workplace:

  • Ask employees not to discuss political matters in company work areas and during work hours
  • Consider banning employees from wearing political accoutrement (pins, buttons, political sweaters, etc.) while working. This ban MUST, by federal law, not extend to union related materials.
  • Employees are not allowed to use company resources (fax, copier, printer, etc.) for political materials or engage in political solicitation while in the workplace.

Separately, and for your line managers, reinforce that it is critical that they avoid political discussion with employees as differing political viewpoints can be leveraged for the purposes of discrimination or harassment actions.

In closing, use your best judgment on whether or not to allow this sort of discourse in your business: you know your employees and how well they may or may not embrace both the topic and how they will react to each other. I’m reminded that in a little less than a month, this election cycle will be over, life and work will go on, and normalcy will return to both the nation and our places of work. At least I’m hopeful.

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