Politics at Work

Posted by Lee Yarborough on 3/9/17 10:15 AM
Lee Yarborough
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Posted on: March 9, 2017

After one of the most negative presidential elections in American history, everyone hoped that the nation would begin to heal and that divisiveness would end. However, every time we see a glimmer of harmony, something happens and we are at odds again. Sadly, our nation feels like the “Divided States of America” and this division can be felt even in the workplace.

With a 24-hour news cycle and a charismatic President who tweets, the first 100 days of the Trump administration are turning out to be very eventful. Both sides of the aisle are inflamed and temperatures are rising. At work, the latest news can turn into an unhealthy debate.

Politics or Discrimination?

Employers need to be aware that one person’s “political” talk can be perceived by another as discrimination. For example, you may have an employee who is passionate about curbing illegal immigration and is often overheard talking about building “the wall.” An employee of Mexican descent may feel that these comments are considered harassment or even discrimination based on national origin.

  • Supervisors need to be trained on how to handle similar situations to reduce employer liability. Conduct harassment and diversity training for all employees and remind your staff of the avenues available to them if they have concerns such as an employee assistance program or an HR hotline.

Political Protest or Protected Activity?

Generally, private sector employees are not protected by the First Amendment when they engage in political activity at work. If an employee chooses to march at a protest instead of showing up for work, they are not protected. An employer may have the right to discipline or terminate employment. Just be careful and assess each situation individually.

  • Contact HR and review the facts. What is the goal of the march or protest? Is the specific issue employment-related? The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects employees who engage in “concerted activities” in relation to wages, workplace conditions, and other employment issues, regardless of whether the workplace is unionized.
Further reading: My Employee Is Protesting Instead of Working

Friendly Debate or Hateful Discourse?

As we have all learned during the election and since the inauguration, the nation is deeply divided. While there is a need for people on both sides to be heard and for conversations to take place, the workplace is not the appropriate setting. Debate at work can lead to anger among employees, low morale, and decreased production. Supervisors and business leaders need to channel diverse teams into building a better widget or improving customer service, not debating foreign policy. 

  • Review your workplace conduct policy. Does it include political expression? Are the consequences clear? Is the policy consistently being enforced?

Politics, protests, and debates all have a place in American democracy, but when politics enter the workplace, there is a risk that differing opinions can be misconstrued. Business leaders must be aware of the potential liabilities among divided workers and must establish policies, trainings, and a positive culture to reduce risks. Regardless of political views, everyone has the right to be treated with respect and professionalism while at work.

If you have any questions or concerns about how your employees are handling politics in the workplace, contact our team of HR experts at Propel HR:

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Topics: Human Resources, Leadership

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