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“Trumping” Political Discourse in the Office

Posted By Cindy Hesch, Thursday, April 6, 2017

“Trumping” Political Discourse in the Office

Written by Matthew M. Kinney, TSC, CSP

It seems like the past few years, political discourse has really ratcheted up several notches as supporters on one side versus the other or one side of a proposition or another try to convince those around them of their viewpoint.  Particularly due to the past contentious election season some businesses are considering banning political discussion altogether—can they and should they?  To get right to the point, as a private employer there is no federal statute that protects an employee’s right to express their political viewpoints at the office; i.e. freedom of speech does not exist in the office per se.  However, if you try to enforce this you could run afoul of several federal laws such as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) for discussions of a minimum wage increase or sick pay proposition or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for terrorism discussions as it relates to the Muslim religion for example.  The bigger question is not whether you can ban political discourse but should you?

Ban or Embrace?

Political discussions are going to happen whether you ban them or embrace them.  I feel that embracing them is a better use of resources and can lead to some positive results.  As an example, consider all the campaign rhetoric regarding national origin, gender, and religion and how you can use that to reinforce, emphasize, and possibly retrain on your company’s policies regarding anti-discrimination and anti-harassment.  As previously mentioned, the NLRA guarantees employees the right to “protected concerted activity” which the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is enforcing rather zealously—it would be so easy to run into problems with employees discussing the various sick pay leave ordinances or minimum wage increase propositions if you attempt to ban political discussions.  If you choose to attempt to ban these discussions, make absolutely sure that it is across the board and for business related reasons as well as not running afoul of other federal statutes.

Playing Nice

If you are going to embrace political discussions in your office there are a few tips that can help manage this:

·         Managers and supervisors should stay neutral.  This is a big deal as what a manager or supervisor says could be interpreted to be speaking for the company, particularly on hot button issues such as immigration, healthcare reform, or minimum wage/paid sick leave.  Managers should not share their political opinions with subordinates as doing so could lead to trying to impose their viewpoints on subordinates.

·         Don’t judge coworkers based on whom they support.  Particularly in the currently charged political environment, try to see your coworkers and employees for who they are and not who they support.

·         Squash Us vs. Them—i.e. Red vs Blue ASAP.  For those that don’t hide their political affiliations you will probably start to see divisions in the office, more pronounced than usual given the current partisan political climate.  Don’t buy into this and try to have discussions with your employees as to why it is unacceptable.

·         The unknown art of concession, or at least seemingly unknown in Washington, D.C., should be readily practiced and taught.  The art of concession is something that can help any workplace and you can use the election season as an opportunity to touch on it a bit more.  A willingness to agree on even a small point shows you are open-minded and level-headed and can readily defuse a volatile political discussion.

Make the Bad People Stop

The next election season seems like it is already round the bend and will probably fire up in earnest before President Trump has been in office 6 months.  Putting policies and procedures in place regarding political discussions and activity in your office will pay ongoing dividends and not just every four years during the presidential elections.  Given the intense partisanship in the country and the most recent bruising election season many of you aren’t Red or Blue but simply Purple from getting pounded with rhetoric.  How you set your office policies and how you handle the rhetoric yourself can go a long way to a smoothly running office.  This isn’t just something that can make for a more harmonious office, but can directly affect your bottom line according to the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence survey—more than 1 in 4 younger employees reported feeling stressed out because of political discussions at work and more than twice as many men as women said political talk is making them less productive!

Matthew M. Kinney is the Executive Vice-President of Research and Development for BWSI.  He writes, speaks at conferences, and is lucky enough to consult with clients all over the country on issues from human resources, employment law, and payroll issues as well as his normal ‘day’ job as a Microsoft certified developer.



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