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5 Legal Steps to Calm Political Discussions in the Workplace

Published on 10/24/2018 12:00:00 AM
You can't avoid politics right now. Try these 5 legal steps to manage political behavior in the workplace, and maintain balance among employees.

Unless you live under a rock, avoiding political discussions has become virtually impossible these days. An unconventional campaign and presidency have set off strong emotions — and, in turn, heated debates.

Keeping the peace among friends and family is challenging enough, but how
do you handle politics in the workplace? Where do you draw the line between allowing employees to express themselves and develop interpersonal relationships — and maintaining a productive, tension-free workplace that’s
free of harassment and discrimination?

Although you can’t silence employees or monitor every conversation, you CAN take certain steps to achieve a healthy balance during these passionate times.

Establish a political activities policy
As with most workplace policies, putting your company’s rules about political activities in writing sets expectations and can help avoid misunderstandings. In addition to explaining that you encourage
diversity and freedom of expression, a well-rounded political activities policy should cover:
Prohibited activities — Clarify what’s not allowed, from wearing political pins to using company resources (telephones, printers, etc.) for politically oriented activities.
Email restrictions — You can restrict company email from being used for outside political endeavors or to promote personal, political or religious beliefs.
Political coercion, harassment and retaliation — Be clear that you will not permit threatening, harassing or discriminatory behavior based on another worker’s political beliefs or activities.
Employees running for public office — Anyone running for public office should keep their involvement from interfering with work performance.
Requesting time off for voting — Employees can take time off
to vote if their work schedule doesn’t allow it before or after work, and if requests are made well in advance.
  ✓ DO: Communicate your company’s policy on political expression clearly and in an easy-to-understand manner. Most employees will follow the rules if they’re made aware of them.
  ✓ DON’T: Overlook the importance of a positive and professional work culture to reinforce your policy; they work in tandem.
Watch for potential political harassment at work
As an employer, you’re obligated to maintain a workplace free of harassment and hostility. This includes safeguarding employees
from badgering or pressure from politically driven coworkers.
Keep in mind, the basis for a lawsuit is often in the eye of the beholder. An offhand remark about a hot topic such as healthcare, immigration or women’s causes can easily shift from casual water cooler conversation to perceived harassment regarding race, gender and other protected classes. Watch out for situations where an employee may be offended
by such speech, especially if it occurs more than once.
  ✓ DO: Adopt and enforce a well-crafted anti-harassment policy, stating clearly that harassment based on any protected class covered by federal, state and local law will not be tolerated.
  ✓ DON’T: Overlook annual harassment and diversity training, which is mandatory in 17 states and considered a best practice for all employers.
Develop a formal complaint procedure
What if, despite your best efforts, an employee oversteps his or her bounds and offends a coworker? That’s where a fair and formal complaint procedure comes in. This helps ensure employees are treated fairly and promptly in uncomfortable situations, which can also prevent them from taking further legal action.
Although the process will vary depending on the size and structure of your business, a formal complaint process typically covers a handful
of steps:
Employee shares concern with an immediate supervisor
Employee submits a written complaint to a senior manager or HR if the situation can’t be resolved in Step 1 (or the complaint involves the immediate supervisor)
HR or senior manager discusses issue with employee and investigates it further, if necessary
A decision or resolution is made, which may include counseling and/or disciplining the offending employee
  ✓ DO: Support an “open door” approach that encourages employees
to raise concerns as quickly as possible, using established channels.
  ✓ DON’T: Neglect to train supervisors and managers on your company’s policy and what to do if they hear or observe inappropriate
workplace conduct.
Take disciplinary action, if necessary
Consider again the employee who overstepped bounds and offended
a coworker — does the situation require follow up? Most likely, yes, especially if you’ve been clear with your workplace policies and the employee broke the rules.
Managers and supervisors should enforce restrictions consistently
and avoid showing bias or preferential treatment. Inconsistency is
bad for employee morale, and may also be illegal. If an employee repeatedly attacks the political, religious or other deeply held beliefs
of another employee, use progressive disciplinary measures up to and including termination.
  ✓ DO: Step in and end workplace conflicts quickly before they become bigger problems.
  ✓ DON’T: Discipline opinions but, rather, disruptions. Focus on the way employees express themselves and how it affects coworkers, not what they express.
Know your limits with off-the-clock political activities
Political activities outside the workplace can be a tricky matter.
In general, you shouldn’t discipline employees for off-hours political activities unless they misrepresent your company’s position, inappropriately tie their own political views with the company’s,
or engage in unlawful or demonstrably harmful activities that
negatively affect your company.
  ✓ DO: Step in and end workplace conflicts quickly before they become bigger problems.
  ✓ DON’T: Tolerate an employee’s use of your company’s name or affiliation in connection with a personal political activity, without written approval.

Putting Politics in Perspective

Preventing political discussions in the workplace altogether may not be realistic in today’s environment. But that doesn’t mean you should allow a free-for-all among your employees.

To get more guidance on this sensitive subject, watch our on demand webinar,
Midterm Election Alert: How to Deal with Political Discussions in the Workplace
in the Workplace
, presented by Jaime Lizotte, HR Solutions Manager and Shanna Wall Esq., Compliance Attorney. Delve further into what is acceptable under the law, and what you can do to protect your business.

Ashley Kaplan, Esq.
Presented by: Ashley Kaplan, Esq.,
Senior Employment Law Attorney
A record number of state and local employment laws were passed in 2018, and many more are pending. With each new law that passes, employers must struggle to understand and comply with ever-increasing obligations.