Political Debates in the Workplace: Where to Draw the Line

2016 presidential campaign likely to spark debates, create ill will

By Susan Milligan May 12, 2015
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Most people have an opinion when it comes to politics. So should employers and HR managers keep such talk out of the workplace?

They can’t, experts say, since attempting to ban political discussions is not only illegal, but also impossible to enforce from a practical perspective. But employers still have a responsibility to make sure workers feel comfortable at work. And it’s a delicate balance, employment lawyers say, because one person’s free speech is another person’s loud-mouthed bullying.

"Just like Congress, we’re pretty divided in the workplace on political issues,” said Tom Crookes, a labor and employment attorney with the Akron, Ohio-based firm Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP. “Where employers have to be cautious is that they’re not going to be able to squash political speech just because somebody might find it objectionable. We have to be cautious, as employers, not to do things that restrict free speech, which the [National Labor Relations Board] says is protected activity.”

The 2016 presidential campaign is likely to stimulate political chatter at work, experts say, but it doesn’t take an election to get people wound up about politics.

Social media and the 24-hour cable news cycle keep controversial matters constantly in the public dialogue, noted Todd Fredrickson, managing partner in the Denver office of the labor and employment law firm Fisher & Phillips. So it’s understandable that the talk would spill over into the workplace, he said. The fact that people’s work and home lives are increasingly intertwined—with people checking work e-mails at home and checking Facebook in the office—also means that old rules about not talking politics or religion at work have gone out the window, added Bruce Clarke, CEO of the North Carolina-based human resources management services firm CAI.

And even seemingly innocuous conversations can easily morph into something far more heated and politically loaded, Clarke added.

For example, conversations about the April 2015 riots in Baltimore might turn into a testy debate about how far police should go in using force. An employee who remarks about the outfit she bought for her son’s same-sex wedding could provoke a co-worker’s objections to gay marriage, or even an accusation that the subject offended someone’s religious beliefs. And that’s when things can start bleeding into a legal territory that can put employers at risk, Fredrickson said. “A [political] conversation can morph into something that is actual harassment” of someone who’s a member of a protected legal class, he said.

A CareerBuilder poll conducted during the 2012 mid-term elections found that 42 percent of respondents said they avoided talking about politics at work. Another 44 percent said they talked about it, but shut down the conversation when it got heated, and 14 percent said they engaged in lively political debates at work.

But political chatter that gets too heated can hurt both the employee and the company, noted John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of the Chicago-based global outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

For example, some managers may be reluctant—consciously or not—to give promotions to workers whose political views differ from their own, he said.

“No company is going to post an explosive rule saying, ‘You can’t talk politics,’ ” Challenger said. “But people recognize that you can damage your career if you are too vocal.”

Customers, too, might be put off if an employee espouses a strong political view, he added. And too much tense talk can create an unproductive work environment. “You don’t want to turn your workplace into Congress. You don’t want gridlock,” Challenger said. “The surest way for a company to go into decline is to have gridlock.”

There are things managers can do to keep the political peace at work. Some advice offered by experts includes:

  • Set the tone from the top by making sure managers respect the views of others. Fredrickson recalled one case in which a Colorado employer, angry that some of his workers were canvassing for a candidate who belonged to a party he opposed, retaliated by giving the workers fewer sales leads. “That’s illegal in Colorado,” he said.
  • Encourage in-person interaction. Technology makes it tempting to communicate by email—another vehicle for heated political comments—but “the more people can talk face to face, the better,” Crookes said, since they will be more tolerant of someone they know as a person.
  • Establish a culture of civility. Employees should be schooled in the company’s anti-harassment policy, Crookes said. If necessary, HR should meet separately with feuding employees, letting them know they need to keep their political battles out of the workplace, he said.

Susan Milligan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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