Political small talk is going to happen at work, especially given the drama of this election season. With the final stretch before the candidates - and us - you'll no doubt overhear political small talk in the office. While a respectful debate over lunch or a brief remark tossed over a cubicle may not merit a response from management, what happens when political arguments at work turn ugly?
Raised voices can disrupt operations. Feelings can be hurt. Team cohesion can suffer. Employees with political differences might refuse to get along. There are even potential legal issues: a political debate about a protected class can devolve into a hostile work environment.
These serious matters don’t have a universal solution. Different employers have different needs and unique cultures. Some employers may want to restrict all non-work-related discussions in the workplace. Others may want a more lenient policy and choose to deal with violations when someone crosses the line.
Whatever approach you take, be careful not to give the impression that you’re trying to regulate the political beliefs of your employees. Generally speaking, a private employer can limit political expression in the workplace—as long as they don't violate Section 7 rights or applicable state laws. Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act gives employees the right to talk about the terms and conditions of their work and the right to unionize. While this law protects some political activities, it doesn’t give employees the right to discuss, during work hours, politics that aren’t work-related.
While Section 7 protects some political activities, it doesn’t give employees the right to discuss, during work hours, politics that aren’t work-related.
Some political discussions are work-related, however. For example, you wouldn’t want to try to stop employees from talking about their pay in light of gender pay equality laws or discussing upcoming social media privacy protection legislation. You also don’t want to restrict off-duty political activity.
The trouble with heated political discussions is not that they’re political, but that they’re disruptive and potentially abusive. So if you’re fine with employees occasionally engaging in non-work-related discussions while they’re on duty, then you may want to allow political discussions generally while prohibiting behaviors that are disruptive or abusive.
Whatever policy you have, you can make it clear to employees that they’ll be disciplined for not working when they should be, for disrupting the work of others, or for harassing them—but not for holding certain political beliefs.
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