At the beginning of 2024, one of the HR trends to keep an eye on was the social and political climate. Between the presidential debate scheduled for later this month, increased action on the campaign trail, and the wide media coverage of former President Trump’s conviction, some political conversation is likely to trickle into the workplace. In this blog, you’ll find some helpful tips for managing political discussion in the workplace.

Political discussions at work can impact overall office morale, create a distraction, and limit productivity. Many employers may wish to prohibit political discussions to prevent this. It is important to consider that although political affiliation is not a protected class under federal law, some states and localities expressly prohibit taking employment action based on political affiliation or political involvement. New York prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on their political activities outside of work hours and off the employer’s premises. Some states are less explicit in protecting political activity but have broad laws that prohibit termination of an employee based on their engagement in lawful conduct off-duty. This lawful conduct may include political activities or speech. 

Even in states where political activity or political affiliation are protected, an employer can still address the impact of political discussions in the workplace and take steps to minimize the risk of potential litigation over political speech. 

5 Tips for Managing Political Discussion in the Workplace: 

  1. Address workplace disruptions proactively 
  2. Remind employees about the importance of maintaining a respectful workplace following significant political or social events
  3. Ensure your Code of Conduct requires respectful interactions 
  4. Apply workplace policies and procedures consistently to all employees 
  5. Train managers on identifying and managing potential conflict before it escalates 

Keep in mind that policies and messaging should balance the need to maintain productivity in the workplace with allowing employees to be their authentic selves, respecting employee rights to free speech and expression. If you decide to restrict employee speech or conduct, ensure it is compliant with state and local law, and that you have a legitimate business reason. 

Codes of conduct or policies addressing respectful workplaces, political activities, social media, dress codes, and decor should detail the speech and conduct that is permitted and what is restricted, allowing managers to refer to these policies for guidance. It is recommended that employees not be restricted from communicating a personal opinion regarding a political candidate. Additionally, an employer should not require employees to support a particular candidate or ostracize an employee for not doing so. 

Employers also need to ensure that all policies in no way prohibit, limit, or restrict employees from exercising any rights provided by law, including but not limited to any activity that is protected under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act, which includes the right of employees to speak with others about the terms and conditions of employment. 

Overall, it is unrealistic to expect employees to ignore current events and to stop talking about political topics altogether, so being prepared is important. Building a culture of respect and professionalism goes a long way in maintaining civility and minimizing disruption. Often, managers don’t respond to issues because they aren’t sure what to say.

Here are some suggestions that can help to support a positive culture: 

  • During the election season (or insert other political/social event), we know that anxieties and tensions may be heightened in the workplace. 
  • Not everyone agrees on this issue, so discussions about it have the potential to lead to conflict. 
  • We respect each individual’s view and want everyone to focus on reducing the likelihood of conflict between co-workers by maintaining that respect. 
  • Maintaining civility and a respectful workplace is important to everyone’s wellbeing and the success of the company. 
  • When you said/did [insert comment or action], it did not meet our standards of respectful conduct and behavior. 
  • We understand that this is a challenging time for many of our employees. You may have concerns about how recent events will impact the company’s policies or your life outside of work. In the coming days we will continue to keep you updated on our response to [insert event]. If you need support, we encourage you to access [insert EAP information or other relevant resources]. 

 

It is important for employers to draft policies and select language that best fits their work environment and reflects their company culture and values. Contact us today to learn more about how ESC can support the HR needs of your organization.