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Handling Politics in the Workplace

“Never mix politics or religion with business.” That old adage still is true, but it is harder to stick to in the current polarized environment when even things that seem benign can cause conflict. Businesses need to have a plan in place to deal with potentially difficult situations.

Should a company formally take a position?

Before company leaders decide to formally take a position, they need to carefully think through the possible ramifications, which can range from boycotts to adverse social media campaigns to employee lawsuits.

Consider Nike’s ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick or Hobby Lobby’s Supreme Court case concerning whether a privately held company had to provide health care coverage for contraceptives, which went against the owners’ religious beliefs. These companies both sparked a media storm that drew attention to their views, and both undoubtedly won and lost customers on that basis.

This is not to say companies should not speak up or act to support their beliefs, but they should think carefully before doing so. Before taking action, companies need to weigh the cost of taking a stand for their beliefs against potential damage to their brands.

What about watercooler talk?

Conversations about divisive issues are happening in companies, whether they like it or not. A 2019 SHRM study shows just how the country’s political divisiveness affects the workplace:

  • Forty-two percent of respondents personally experienced political disagreements in the workplace.
  • Thirty-four percent said their workplace is not inclusive of differing political perspectives.
  • Twelve percent personally experienced political affiliation bias.

It is unrealistic to think your company can prevent these conversations. The best thing a company can do is try to create and reinforce a culture that accepts diversity and inclusion. This means company leaders, from the C-suite to managers and supervisors, need to treat their direct reports equally even when their social or political beliefs differ from their own.

The First Amendment is not a defense against an employer’s rules.

With some exceptions, the freedom of speech protections afforded by the First Amendment prohibit the government from restricting free speech, but those protections do not extend to private sector workplaces. Employers can set their own policies regarding speech, and employees cannot raise the First Amendment as a defense.

Guidelines to prevent conflict

In addition to modeling behavior from the top down, there should be clear policies outlining hot-button issues. For example, everyone at the company should be trained to recognize the difference between conversation and harassment, be aware of any dress codes related to messaging, know whether they can view or listen to political shows at the workplace, understand the company’s social media policies, and be familiar with company policies and procedures regarding harassment and bullying.

Before setting any policies, however, check with an employment attorney to ensure they are compliant with federal, state, and local laws and regulations. Some jurisdictions have laws protecting employees’ freedom of expression, including political speech.

Posted September 2020 – Copyright 2020

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