Talking Politics at Work: HR’s Unspoken Rules

October 6, 2020 Jeramy Gordon

Politics are everywhere these days. Talking politics at work is inevitable, especially during an election year.

Employee views will most certainly run the political spectrum, but what role does HR take in encouraging free and open dialogue while balancing an employee’s right to feel safe in the workplace?

Some companies encourage political debate while others shy away. But no matter which route your company takes, ensuring conversations do not escalate into conflicts is vital.

While there’s no right or wrong answer — and it’s important to encourage diversity of thought — talking politics at work can get employees and the companies they work for into hot water.

A Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) poll conducted in October 2019 found 42% of employees have had a “political disagreement” at work, and 12% have experienced political affiliation bias.

So, what can employers do policy-wise when it comes to talking politics at work?

Let’s take a look:

Free Speech and the Workplace

People are quick to use the First Amendment to the Constitution when defending their use of politics in the workplace.

But the First Amendment doesn’t govern private businesses.

Under the First Amendment, the U.S. Constitution prohibits Congress from making laws that obstruct freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the right to peaceably assemble and, therefore, only acts as a restraint on government.

While some experts believe an outright ban on talking politics at work may be illegal, employers are well within their rights to limit an employee’s speech while on the clock. But what’s the right approach from an HR perspective?

The unspoken rule for many in HR has been to avoid politics at all costs. That’s proving more difficult as our nation grows more divided and political rhetoric is streamed to us 24/7 via cable news and social media.

Political discourse has gotten so polarizing in that last decade some individuals claim they no longer respect friends, family or co-workers with opposing beliefs.

Avoiding this level of toxicity in the workplace should be HR’s primary goal, but is a company-wide policy the answer?

The legalities of talking politics at work

Freedom of speech is only one aspect of the law HR managers need to be aware of. This is where talking politics at work gets murky.

Jay Hornack, an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law who specializes in employee rights, says private employers can set their own rules about what speech is acceptable.

But there are some exceptions.

Public-sector employees, for example, are protected by the First Amendment. Unionization is also a form of protected speech in public and private companies. According to the Nation Labor Relations Board (NLRB), private-sector employees can engage in political speech “for the purpose of collective bargaining and other mutual aid.”

Then, some states have written laws protecting employees’ political expression. The following states have laws that prohibit employers from retaliating against employees for engaging in political activities or expression:

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Louisiana
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • South Carolina
  • Utah
  • West Virginia
  • Guam (territory of the U.S.)

While the following states and territories have laws prohibiting employers from discriminating against employees based on political ideologies:

  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Louisiana
  • New York
  • Utah
  • Washington, D.C.
  • Puerto Rico
  • U.S. Virgin Islands

Creating a policy about discussing politics at work

Cultivating a culture of respect is key to encouraging a healthy dialogue among employees. Without mutual respect, morale declines and company culture takes a direct hit.

A company policy directing employees when and how it’s relevant and useful to discuss politics in the workplace can help workers see that some of their co-workers see things differently – and that’s OK.

When it becomes a problem is when employees use political disagreements as a shield for harassing co-workers. It should be company policy that all opinions are welcomed, valued, and respected, but there is a time and place for politics.

Here are six actions HR teams can take when creating a policy around talking politics at work:

  1. Focus on respect: Send employee communications or hold training sessions around respecting one another in the workplace. This does not have to link to politics directly but it can be an opportunity to use as an example when discussing respect in the workplace.
  2. Define harassment: When politics cross the line from opinion to harassment, companies have a problem. Clearly defining what the company deems acceptable and unacceptable when talking politics at work is critical.
  3. Be an example: While some companies knowingly and willingly thrust themselves into political conversations, remaining neutral may be best for employee morale as workers may fear retaliation or differential treatment for expressing opposing views.
  4. Turn off the news: Consider keeping political programming off office TVs and limiting an employee’s access to external news sites during working hours.
  5. Be clear on visual displays: Let employees know whether displaying political views, such as hats, campaign buttons, or bumper stickers, is prohibited.
  6. Prohibit the use of company property for political purposes: An easy step for companies to take is to create a policy banning the use of company property for political purposes. For example, prohibitions on copy machines or other office supplies for political activity may be wise.

With a policy in place and well communicated, businesses can avoid political escalations. HR’s role is to encourage healthy dialogue while eliminating the possibility of harassment.

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