You know how it goes – you start a friendly conversation with a co-worker about your favorite topic. But the minute you mention “politics” in the office, the chat goes from convivial to heated in moments.
As the Aug. 5 Michigan primary election approaches, candidates are pushing their message out to voters via Internet, radio, television, social media, telephone and direct mail. In response, some voters are taking it upon themselves to act as messengers for their preferred candidate.
And while passionate political debate and activism are an important part of American society, this fervor can be detrimental to the workplace, says Thomas Schramm, a partner with Detroit-based labor and employment law firm, Nemeth Law PC.
“Some employers may be hesitant to curb political enthusiasm this time of year. However, failing to keep watch for increasing political discussions may lead to unfortunate legal dilemmas, a short-term decrease in productivity or long-term impact on employee relations,” Schramm said, adding that employees who are busy working typically cause fewer problems across the board.
“Conversely, employers who want to completely restrict all discussion of politics and candidates may be perceived as ‘un-American’. This could negatively affect workplace morale and provoke resistance from employees,” Schramm said. “If the employer is too heavy-handed in trying to root out political speech during business hours, it has the potential to backfire and cause problems bigger than the one the employer originally tried to fix.”
Some background: Nemeth Law specializes in employment litigation, traditional labor law and management consultation for private and public sector employers. It is the largest woman-owned law firm in Michigan to exclusively represent management in the prevention, resolution and litigation of labor and employment disputes.
Schramm says political viewpoints are not a protected classification and private employers have the right to allow or not allow political discussion or commentary in the workplace.
“The important aspect of establishing or maintaining a rule regarding political speech is to set a policy, communicate it clearly to all employees and apply it evenly,” Schramm said. “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.”
Schramm suggests employers consider the following guidelines to avoid having political elections disrupt the workplace:
• Use a policy that clearly communicates to all employees what is and is not acceptable workplace discussion and apply it consistently regardless of political affiliations – or the election cycle.
• Although political speech is not a protected activity or classification in a private employer’s workplace, employees may take such speech more personally; accordingly, any policy or rule should consider the reality of political speech.
• Employers should avoid the appearance of endorsing any candidate. This is especially true if the workplace is open to the public, such as a retailer or restaurant.
• Because not all workplaces are accustomed to debating issues daily, employees may not be used to handling potentially divisive discussions appropriately; these distractions may 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,” Schramm said. “At the same time, employers need to be careful discerning between pure unprotected political speech and other politically-tinged speech that could still find some level of legal protection.”
For example, politics may be intermixed with religious proselytizing protected under laws prohibiting religious discrimination, or politics may find their way into a discussion among employees regarding wages and working conditions that labor law considers protected unionization activity. Drawing the line is not always easy for employers – or even courts. As to how employers can nudge employees toward the goal of civility and productivity during this election season, Schramm offered some general advice.
“Employers need to remind employees that the election season will soon be over and everyone will have to continue working together afterward,” Schramm said.