Talking politics at work is not a good idea. Learn what private employers can legally do to control the conversation and prevent disruptions.
Let’s be real. There’s pretty much no upside to your employees talking politics at work.
- Individual politics are rooted in our own unique experiences.
- People can become very emotional and passionate about their beliefs, and take it personally when someone disagrees.
- With today’s increased polarization between the two main political parties, unfortunately, attitudes toward those who believe differently can be quite harsh.
This is especially true in a major election year when there tends to be a lot of anxiety about “the other side” winning, or when current events cause tension.
In an office setting, talking about these matters can be a recipe for disaster.
Why is talking politics at work something you should avoid?
These conversations can be disruptive to a positive, harmonious work environment. You want your office to be a neutral space where everyone works together to achieve the same goals:
Serving your customers in accordance with your brand promise.
Talking politics at work distracts from your shared goals and common purpose.
Instead, it can:
- Create division and impair relationships that would otherwise be productive and collaborative
- Result in a hostile, contentious environment in which employees bicker and hold grudges against colleagues who have different beliefs
- Isolate certain people and make people not want to interact with them at all
When colleagues aren’t getting along, morale and productivity can take a nosedive.
If you’re on the fence about whether political discussions are healthy for the workplace, ask yourself these questions:
- Do you want to witness your team members debating potentially divisive, hot-button issues where emotions could run high and arguments could break out? In extreme (and hopefully rare) cases, this could escalate to physical altercations.
- Do you think it’s possible that some of your employees could feel uncomfortable or discriminated against based on the content of their co-workers’ political discussions? Is that the type of work environment you’d like for your employees?
- Do you want to expose customers to your employees’ personal political beliefs, which has the potential alienate them? Does this serve your business’ goals?
Chances are, your answers to these questions support the argument that it’s best to leave political discussions outside of the workplace.
So how can you set boundaries for what’s appropriate to talk about at work and prevent the possibility of these situations from arising in the first place?
When employers are – and aren’t – legally allowed to limit political discussions in the workplace
It may surprise you to learn that our country’s First Amendment right to free speech isn’t protected in most private companies.
The First Amendment:
- Only protects each of us against government retribution for speaking our mind
- Doesn’t say anything about what private employers can regulate on the job
In fact, political speech and affiliation aren’t federally protected at all.
However, some states and municipalities do:
- Protect employees’ political expression and their right to express political opinions
- Prohibit employers from discriminating against them on the basis of political beliefs and activity
Check with your legal counsel to confirm whether the locations where you operate are among them.
In general, private employers have the discretion to limit political expression during normal work hours and on work premises.
An exception to this is the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which prohibits employers from banning workers from discussing the terms and conditions of their employment, including:
- Salary and wages (along with minimum wage)
- Paid leave
- Union activity (regardless of whether they’re a member of a union, or whether or not unions are active in the industry or area where you operate)
These topics could very well be part of a political party’s or candidate’s stance, but these are also issues that are relevant to terms and conditions of employment.
Here’s an example of potentially political speech that you, as an employer, can’t regulate because of the NLRA:
Let’s say a few of your employees are discussing one political candidate’s support for raising minimum wage, which then trails into a conversation about starting pay at your company. No matter how uncomfortable it makes you, this may be protected speech since pay relates to your terms and conditions of employment.
When in doubt about what’s legally allowed, seek outside counsel from your legal team.
4 tips for controlling the vitriol associated with talking politics at work
1. Establish a policy about political speech and activity at work.
If you want to clearly set expectations for employees about limiting political speech and activity in your workplace, you need to have a written policy explaining what is and isn’t permissible.
This policy should be documented in your employee handbook. This way, the rules are transparent and accessible to everyone on your team.
Examples of what you can ban:
- Conversations between employees on work premises about political topics not protected under the NLRA
- Soliciting or campaigning on work premises
- Sending emails of a political nature, on company computers and using a company email address, to other employees, customers or industry partners
- Wearing political or campaign attire to work
- Decorating one’s office or cubicle with political or campaign messaging not protected under the NLRA
However, communicate that your company values everyone on the team for who they are as individuals and the different perspectives they bring to their jobs. You want to be clear that you’re not discriminating or retaliating against any single person based on their personal political affiliation and engagement in lawful activity outside work.
Furthermore, communicate that mutual respect among colleagues is the foundation of all interactions in the workplace.
Elements of a no-politics policy may overlap with other existing policies and standards about:
- Diversity and inclusion
- Harassment and bullying
- Discrimination and retaliation
- Workplace conflict resolution
- Codes of professional conduct
- Use of company equipment and technology
- Communication and interpersonal relations
- Dress code
- Office decorations
That’s fine. For the sake of clarity and thoroughness, it’s helpful to also have a policy focused specifically on politics in the workplace. Just be sure that your policies don’t conflict.
2. Apply the rules consistently.
Companies must be consistent in limiting behaviors in the workplace. You can’t pick and choose the behaviors that you permit, or the employees who can get away with engaging in these activities.
3. Monitor workplace discussions and activity, and be prepared to step in before a situation escalates.
As an employer, you have a responsibility to:
- Stop any disruptions that can negatively impact the working environment, customer service or the team’s overall performance
- Make all employees feel comfortable and welcome in your workplace
In addition to the hostility that political discussions can perpetuate, you have legal concerns as well. A group of employees discussing a political party’s or candidate’s position on protected factors – race, religion, national origin or gender – can trigger discrimination complaints from other employees who feel that their colleagues are biased against them.
What you and your managers can do:
- Set a good example from leadership on down by adhering to no-politics rules while in the workplace.
- Don’t make jokes about controversial topics.
- Avoid discussing politics with subordinates – even if you share the same beliefs.
- Stay engaged with your team and what they’re talking about. Walk around the office periodically and listen.
- If you hear a political conversation in progress, politely yet firmly remind your employees that they’re off task and that these discussions belong outside the workplace. If necessary, remind them that we all have different beliefs and it’s OK to agree to disagree. Don’t wait until the conversation becomes aggressive, disrespectful, threatening or, even worse, physical.
- React to others’ derogatory jokes or comments about protected factors. This means that you should immediately let the offending party know that behavior isn’t acceptable in your workplace and put a stop to it.
- Train leaders to recognize and effectively deal with discrimination and harassment issues.
- Investigate all discrimination and harassment complaints. Thank employees who have submitted complaints for voicing their concerns, and follow up with them to let them know the appropriate action was taken in alignment with your disciplinary policy.
4. Periodically remind everyone of the rules.
Reminders of no-politics rules are important, especially as elections approach or certain events with the potential to inflame emotions and cause division dominate news cycles.
Examples of what you can do:
- Use group meetings as opportunities to remind employees which discussions are off limits at work and to emphasize practicing mutual respect and maintaining civility.
- Proactively write and send a series of emails focused on this topic leading up to elections or in response to current events. Stagger delivery on a weekly basis.
- Offer regular training about issues such as discrimination, harassment and professional conduct.
Summing it all up
Talking politics at work is never a good idea for the harm it does to interpersonal relationships, productivity, performance and the overall culture.
If you’re a private employer, you have the power to take control over the situation and regulate what is discussed in your workplace (in compliance with the National Labor Relations Act). You also have an obligation to provide a welcoming space for all employees and protect your company from harassment and discrimination complaints.
- Make sure you have an airtight policy about not discussing politics in the workplace, and apply it consistently.
- Send periodic reminders about the rules, especially as upcoming elections and current events dictate.
- Be prepared to step in quickly to diffuse and redirect political conversations.
For more information on mitigating threats to your company, download our free e-book: HR compliance: Are you putting your business at risk?