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An HR Guide to Political Expressions at Work

I’m writing this article on August 19, which means we’re a little more than two months away from the national election. The Democratic National Convention is currently taking place, the Republican National Convention starts next week, and the political advertisements are starting to bombard us. Politics are naturally the focus of our national dialogue, so should they be a part of our dialogue at work?   

If you’re like me, you just answered “no” to that question. Because I work in human resources and frequently mediate conflicts between employees, I know it’s difficult for people with differing opinions to get along.

Thus, I was not surprised to learn that The Politics at Work survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management found that political conversations at the workplace are on the rise and are causing conflicts.

Other things the survey found was that, of the 522 respondents:

  • 42% personally experienced political disagreements in the workplace.
  • 34% said their workplace is not inclusive of differing political perspectives.
  • 12% personally experienced political affiliation bias.

A study conducted by The Harris Poll found that, out of over 1,200 respondents: 

  • 60% believe discussing politics at work is unacceptable.
  • 24% of Republican employees and 23% of Democrat employees would not want to work with a co-worker who plans to vote for a presidential candidate they don’t like in the next election.
  • 60% of employees believe discussing politics at work could negatively impact their career opportunities.

Finally, a study conducted by the HR firm Randstad found that, out of the 800 respondents:

  • 47% felt the need to hide their political beliefs in order to fit in with senior leaders.
  • 55% witnessed heated political discussions at work. 

Why do political discussions get so heated? Here’s some science to explain it.

In their article “The biology of cultural conflict,” Gregory Berns and Scott Atran say that conflict between cultural groups (such as political parties) only occurs “when the beliefs and traditions of one cultural group represent a challenge to individuals in another.” Meaning, when both parties believe in the same thing – such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – there is no conflict. However, if one party believes in something like the death penalty and the other doesn’t, then that presents a challenge to both groups’ belief system.   

And, what happens when our belief system is challenged? Berns and Atran say that being presented with beliefs and traditions that are contrary to ours causes our amygdala – the part of the brain that causes the fight or flight response – to activate, thus inspiring some of us to “experience moral outrage and engage in violence.” 

Indeed, I read an exchange on Facebook in which two women who are FB friends with a friend of mine physically threatened each other because they couldn’t express their differing political opinions without insulting each other.

Because it’s difficult for most people to engage in an exchange of opposing viewpoints without getting angry, it’s wise to stay away from political discussions at work. And, if you’re an employer, you might just decide to ban them altogether. Before you do, here are some things you should know.

The National Labor Relations Act gives employees the right to talk about politicians and political issues when those topics are work-related. For example, employees may discuss Candidate X when that discussion is really about the candidate’s push for a higher minimum wage or something that could affect employees’ working conditions. However, employees may be prevented from discussing Candidate X when that discussion is really about the candidate’s stance on abortion or something else that has nothing to do with work. The same rules apply to clothing. For example, employees may be prevented from wearing a “Vote for Candidate X” shirt but may not be prevented from wearing a “Vote for Candidate X because he’ll raise the minimum wage” shirt.

Having said all that, employers still have the right to put a stop to any communication or behavior that negatively affects productivity or causes distractions whether that communication or behavior is protected or not.

Additionally, employers have the right to take adverse action – such as firing or demoting – employees for their communication and behavior outside of work in certain situations. For example, employers may not take action against an employee for engaging in lawful activities, such as participating in a protest. However, that changes if an employee is late to work because of protesting or is caught vandalizing while protesting.

The same philosophy applies to social media postings. Employees have the right to express their political opinions on-line – such as urging people to vote for Candidate X – as long as those postings aren’t inflammatory or violate the company’s social media policies. For example, in 2017, Juli Briskman was photographed giving the middle finger to President Trump’s motorcade while it drove past her on her bicycle. Briskman posted the picture on Facebook and Twitter, it quickly went viral, and she was subsequently dismissed from her job with a government contractor for violating its social media policy. Briskman sued for wrongful termination and lost.  

If the above information has you wondering “What about the First Amendment? Don’t employees have the right to say whatever they want to at work or away from it?” Not exactly. The First Amendment protects people from the government taking action against them, not from their employers.

Banning talking about politics at work is not the answer, but here are some things employers may do:

  • Nothing and see if anything happens. 
  • Send out a friendly reminder such as: “As our national election approaches, please be reminded that conversations regarding the election, candidates, and issues are to remain respectful and not interfere with job performance.” 
  • Create a policy such as: “Our company supports employees’ right to participate in political activities on their own time. The following activities are prohibited from being performed while on duty: demonstrating, counting or recounting votes, circulating petitions, soliciting votes or contributions at any time in any working area, conducting or participating in opinion polls, fundraising, and all other activities not considered part of the employee’s normal duties.”

Instead of having to refrain from expressing our opinions so we don’t get heated, what most of us need is training on how to calmly and respectfully disagree with others. Perhaps then we could discuss our opposing viewpoints without going to war. What a wonderful world that would be.

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Disclaimer: The information and resources provided herein are not a substitute for experienced legal counsel and does not constitute legal advice or attempt to address the numerous factual issues that inevitably arise in any employment-related dispute. Although this information attempts to cover some major recent developments, it is not all-inclusive, and any recommendations are based upon HR best practices and procedures. We recommend you consult an attorney for legal guidance.

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