There’s a contentious presidential election underway, a global pandemic is upending all facets of life, and protests for racial justice are taking place all across the country. Whether you realize it or not, political opinions are being shared in your workplace.

One recent study found that more than half of American workers talk politics at work, with men much more likely than women to engage in political chatter at the watercooler. Another study from the Society for Human Resources Management found that 42 percent of employees have had a political disagreement at work.

And that’s OK, says Michelle Thompson, vice president of human resources at XMI.

“Your employees are human,” she says. “Having opinions about these important topics and wanting to discuss them—these are very human things to do.”

The problem isn’t the disagreement; it’s when the disagreement causes a toxic work environment or discrimination. Only a quarter of American employees would describe their workplaces as “definitely inclusive” of differing political perspectives, finds the SHRM study cited above. Forty percent say their workplaces are “mostly inclusive.” The remaining respondents say they work in offices that are not friendly to differing political perspectives. What’s more, one in 10 working Americans say they have personally experienced either differential treatment because of political views or bias because of their political affiliation.

What about banning political banter altogether? It may sound like a good solution, but you might want to check if it’s legal first. And, no, we’re not even talking about the First Amendment, which prohibits governments from restricting free speech (but says nothing about private employers.)

The National Labor Relations Act protects certain activities that both union and nonunion employees might engage in for the purposes of collective bargaining or other “mutual aid or protection,” which would cover discussions about wages, hours or working conditions. A recent National Law Review article lists more than a dozen states and several municipalities that prohibit private employers from retaliating against employees for engaging in various political activities, including merely expressing political opinions.

Even where it’s not illegal, experts agree that trying to muzzle employees over political beliefs is both unwise and ineffective. “Today’s employees are passionate about these issues and their beliefs, and they also have much different notions about what is and what isn’t acceptable to talk about at work,” Thompson says. “These topics are no longer taboo; in some cases, they’re ingrained in their personal identities.”

The key, then, isn’t ridding your workplace of political expression. Instead, it’s accepting that political expression will take place and providing the right safeguards to keep it from becoming discriminatory or disruptive. Here’s how:

Cultivate the right culture:

A culture that values respect and civility will go a long way toward keeping political expression on the right side of appropriate. As with any directive, this starts at the top with a commitment from leadership. And it’s not enough to “Do what I say.” Your team needs to hear from you on this topic and also see you modeling appropriate behavior. If you’re making disparaging comments about a political candidate, your employees might see that as an invitation to do the same. It’s also not enough to offer a single training on respect and call it a day. Making it part of the culture requires frequent touchpoints.

Put it in a policy:

Policies can help prevent employees from making assumptions. And yet, a recent study by the Illinois Technology Association found that 79 percent of companies do not have a general policy covering political discussion. In such a policy, “make what constitutes an ‘opinion’ and what rises to the level of harassing another worker clear,” suggests this article in the Spring 2020 issue of HR Magazine.

The key to appropriate political expression in the workplace starts with a culture of respect (see above).

“Employees certainly will, and should be allowed to, express their thoughts and ideas on a variety of sensitive topics, including political expression,” Thompson says. “It’s when they cross the line from respectful discussion to confrontational behavior that employers should intervene to address the behavior, not the discussion.”

She adds that disrespectful behavior should not be tolerated in any situation and should be included in professionalism in the workplace or similar policies. As with any company policy, companies should be clear about the process for reporting suspected violations as well as the repercussions for violating them.

Apply the rules consistently and address problems swiftly:

Like with any sensitive workplace issue, it’s never a good idea to enforce the policy in one situation and look the other way in another. Being selective in how you apply workplace policies of any kind can put your business at risk of low morale, high turnover or actual liability.
Need help navigating the dos and don’ts of political expression in your company? XMI can work with you on cultivating a culture of civility and creating clear, enforceable policies. Get in touch today at info@xmigrowth.com or 615-248-9255.

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