Politics in the Workplace: A Hot Button Issue for 2020



People are a lot angrier than they used to be, you are not imagining it!

It showed up in an NPR/IBM survey in which 84% of people said Americans are angrier than we were a generation ago.

The Atlantic Magazine examined the phenomena under the headline, ‘The Real Roots of American Rage’.

The pressure of living under the constraints of a global public health crisis has not exactly calmed us all down. 

The American Psychiatric Association recently conducted a poll which tracked how much more anxious we are feeling.

Now we have the challenge of the return to work following the pandemic closures.

And it all coincides with the run-up to a general election on November 3rd which promises to be as partisan and confrontational as any in recent history.

There has never been a greater risk that all that anger and anxiety will lead to ugly incidents in the workplace when political views are shared among colleagues.

Your first thought might be, can I avoid the problem with a ban on anyone talking about politics while at work?

It is possible for employers to create policies aimed at removing political statements and debates from the workplace.

According to HR services company Insperity, discussion about politics and affiliation is largely not protected by free speech rights under the 1st amendment. 

There are some exceptions relating to discussions about the terms and conditions of a workers’ employment that are protected by the National Labor Relations Act – examples include conversations about unionization and workplace conditions.

Some States have their own laws on this topic.

However, many employers have successfully implemented policies prohibiting the wearing of clothing with political statements and the display of campaign materials.

Here is a sample policy from the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM):

[Company Name] encourages employees to participate in political activities. Participating in these activities must be conducted on the employee’s own time. Vacation leave may be requested to conduct such activities.

The following activities are prohibited from being performed while on duty:

  • Demonstrating.
  • Counting or recounting votes.
  • Circulating petitions.
  • Soliciting votes or contributions at any time in any working area of a [Company Name] facility.
  • Conducting or participating in opinion polls.
  • Fundraising.
  • All other activities not considered part of the employee’s normal duties.

Realistically, an outright ban on talking about politics in the workplace is difficult to uphold.

SHRM addressed this in an article published in its HR Magazine earlier this year. 

While noting that calls to SHRM’s helpline with queries about dealing with discussion of politics at work have leapt in number over the past year, the article suggests steps that HR experts say can help:

  • Establish office policies and conduct training about showing respect to co-workers, but do not focus specifically on politics as this can fuel conflict.
  • Try to establish guidelines about what constitutes an ‘opinion’ and what rises to the level of ‘harassment’ of a colleague.
  • Set an example at the top. Managers should not talk about who they support or any aspect of politics.
  • Steer conversations away from politics in meetings to stayed focused on more generic aspects of an issue.

This is not a simple issue to solve.

And it gets even more complicated when you factor in comments by employees on social media.

But that is a whole new topic we will tackle in a future blog!


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