Politics in the Workplace: What Are the Rules?

The presidential election is less than three weeks away, but it could be a looong three weeks for employers and HR managers. Nicole Jeong of law firm Morrison & Foerster explains:

“[B]ecause many of the issues at the forefront of these elections can be deeply personal since they deal with race, class, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, religion, inequality and more, friendly conversations can easily escalate into heated debates. It is important to take steps to attempt to minimize politically based conflicts in the workplace because they can interfere with productivity and lead to formal complaints or even to a potential lawsuit.”

For your reference, five considerations for keeping the peace during this election season:

1. It’s OK to place limits around certain activities:

“While various laws limit employers’ ability to restrict political speech on the jobsite, companies also may impose certain restrictions on employees. For example, you may limit employee solicitations to non-working time and distributions to non-working areas, as well as ban non-employees from engaging in such activities on a jobsite. You also may impose limits on employee use of corporate computer and email systems, or restrict access to certain Internet sites through employer-owned electronic systems.” (Fisher & Phillips)

2. Banning political speech entirely might not be possible:

“… the First Amendment does not apply to private employers’ regulation of employees’ speech and does not preclude private companies from regulating or banning political discussion entirely. State and local laws may, however, protect political speech or activity. Employers should become familiar with the state and local laws pertaining to political activity to ensure their policies and actions comply with these laws.” (FordHarrison)

3. Managers should refrain from political speech:

“Prudent employers will also want to remind managers and supervisors that they should not express an opinion about politics to employees, as this may be perceived as the ‘Company’s’ point of view.” (Miller & Martin)

4. Remind workers that policies prohibit harassment:

“Refresh and retrain employees on relevant anti-harassment, anti-discrimination, and equal employment opportunity policies. To this end, describe the types of conduct prohibited by these policies, and emphasize that attacking the beliefs (political or otherwise) of other employees can arguably constitute harassment. In addition, encourage employees to promptly report any speech or activity they find to be harassing or in violation of company policy.” (Fisher & Phillips)

5. Enforce policies with consistency:

“Remember that consistent enforcement of [political speech] policies, along with ensuring your employees have access to and understand the policies, is key. Disciplining one employee’s political speech while turning a blind eye to another’s may serve as a basis for discrimination claims.” (Morrison & Foerster)

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