It’s difficult to escape news
coverage about the upcoming election these days. It dominates CNN, interrupts
regular programming, and is front and center on most social media platforms and
likely a topic of discussion (some more contentious than others) at the
nation’s dinner tables. To some degree, it’s inevitable that some political
talk will spill over into the workplace but is it OK to talk politics in the
workplace? If so, should you have some rules in place to keep it kind?
The short answer to these BIG questions is yes.
Speaking to the first question, from a federal perspective, you cannot prohibit employees from discussing politics as it would infringe upon their right to free speech. However, there is a bit of a loophole in that conversations deemed detrimental to your company’s culture can be banned without it being viewed as infringement. Further, some states have their own rules about the right to free speech in the workplace and have made various attempts to regulate what can be discussed and under what circumstances.
Speaking to the second question, in our experience, the smartest approach to head off issues before they even start is to create guidelines to keep these discussions respectful and work-appropriate. But what should your policy include? Below, we outline a few key considerations:
One of the best ways to limit political chit-chat in the workplace is to prohibit employees from campaigning for particular candidates or parties, including passing out literature, promotional items, or anything else intended to show support or sway support for a candidate or candidates during regular work hours. If your employee manual has an existing non-solicitation policy, such as preventing workers from asking coworkers to buy girl scout cookies or support a fundraiser, you can tack political solicitation into that. However, you can’t prohibit them from soliciting during breaks or lunch hours, so be mindful that any policy update is worded accordingly.
Dress code and memorabilia:
These days, one of the easiest ways to show support for a candidate is to wear a t-shirt, hat, or even a snarky button declaring your affiliation, but this is actually one of the easiest ones to fix! Your employee handbook should already include a brief section on the dress code for the office and, if you haven’t already, it’s very simple to add a clause that states that clothing cannot bear slogans of any type. With regard to pins, you can ask employees not to wear them in the office, but there are a few exceptions: workers can wear them during non-work hours and they can also wear pins if they are political slogans associated with union representation. We should also note that this dress code policy must be acknowledged and enforced for all employees or else it could be viewed as discrimination.
Once again, you’re going to want to refer back to your employee handbook to the section regarding use of company equipment for non-work-related endeavors. Make sure that your policy clearly states that employees cannot use employee equipment or materials for political campaigning (unless, again, they are doing so as part of a union). Further, your electronic communication policy should note that it is the property of the company and that discussions can be regulated accordingly.
Notables and Quotables:
While controlling the free speech of your employees is not allowed, you can control what they say about politics in reference to your company. A good, all-encompassing policy is to simply state that your company’s name cannot be used in any political activity without prior written approval. Further, while a little less cut and dry, you can request that employee participation in political activities does not reflect unfavorably on your company, such as asking that they not wear items with your company logo when campaigning or declare an affiliation with your company if being quoted in the media or for promotional purposes.
Remind, often and as needed:
When the political debates are heating up, chances are so will the conversations! After a particular heated debate, pre-empt any issues by sending a quick reminder email to your staff to let them know that with the election in full swing, it is important to remember the company’s core principles and values, as well as their commitment to embrace the diversity of their peers and treat their co-workers with professionalism and respect. You can also reiterate that while conversations are not forbidden, HR will step in should they violate these policies and will be forced to take action.
At the end of the day, political discussions, while part of our current climate, are areas ripe for hurt feelings and even bullying and discrimination. Being proactive and letting employees know that while you value each employees’ opinions, it should not overshadow the respectful and collaborative corporate culture that employees have grown to know and love.