By Patricia Nemeth, J.D. and
Kellen Myers, J.D.
Oct. 25, 2012
The elections are right around the corner and candidates are pushing harder than ever for every last vote. Although passionate political debate and activism is an important part of our society, this fervor can be detrimental to the workplace. Some employers may not want to curb the political enthusiasm around this time of year; however, failing to keep watch for increasingly frenzied political discussions may lead to unfortunate legal dilemmas or long-term impact on employee relations. Conversely, employers who want to completely restrain or restrict all discussion of politics and candidates may encounter resistance from their employees and create an impression of overreaching that negatively affects workplace morale.
Fortunately for employers, political viewpoints are not a protected classification and private employers have the right to allow or disallow political discussion or commentary in the workplace. The important aspect of establishing or maintaining a rule regarding this type of speech is to set a policy, communicate it clearly to all employees, and apply it evenly. This is true whether it’s a rule put in place for political discussion or simply part of the employer’s regular policy or handbook. Employers need to be careful though in that selectively silencing certain groups or affiliations may inadvertently create a policy that appears to be discriminatory in nature.
Accordingly, private employers may want to consider:
Using a policy that is clearly communicated to all employees and is applied consistently regardless of political affiliations.
Although political speech is not a protected activity or classification in a private employer’s workplace, employees may take such speech more personally. Any policy or rule should consider this reality of political speech.
Avoiding the appearance of endorsing any candidate. This is especially true if the workplace is open to the public, such as a retailer or restaurant.
Although some workplaces, such as law firms, may be used to debating issues daily; other workplaces may have more limited opportunities for debate of significant issues. Because of this, those employees may not be used to handling the discussions appropriately, and these distractions may lead to reduced productivity and raise harassment or discrimination concerns.
If employees discuss political issues, the discussion needs to be done respectfully and in a manner that does not disrupt the workplace. Employees need to remember that the election season will soon be over and everyone will still have to continue working together afterward.
Patricia Nemeth is a founding partner of Nemeth Burwell, P.C. and Kellen Meyers is an associate. Celebrating 20 years in 2012, Nemeth Burwell specializes in employment litigation, traditional labor law and management consultation for private and public sector employers. Contact Nemeth at firstname.lastname@example.org and Meyers at email@example.com.