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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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, Effective and Legal Ways to Avoid Political Unrest in the Workplace: How to Manage Heated Discussions at Work, 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.
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