Addressing Politics in the Workplace

March 28, 2024
Addressing Politics in the Workplace

It’s a Presidential election year, and the campaign season is already upon us. Do you have employees who are politically active or outspoken? Are political discussions distracting you from your core mission, or negatively impacting employee engagement?

Politics can evoke strong emotions and those seemingly unavoidable political discussions in the workplace can become problematic by creating tension among employees, undermining the workplace culture, creating interruptions in productivity, lowering morale, and even resulting in complaints of discrimination or harassment.

But, it’s not enough for employers to simply hope that employees will think before speaking or avoid talking about politics to prevent negatively impacting relationships with co-workers or the workplace culture at large. Employers need to set an example from the top and ensure that management and employees are given guidance for how to steer conversations away from politics or how to respectfully disengage when conversations become heated or uncomfortable. Some simple, but effective suggestions that you can share with your employees include:

  1. Being self-aware — meaning they should act and communicate professionally and from a place of inclusion and respect, and keep a close tab on their own emotions and feelings.
  2. Carefully considering the potential impact of what they plan to say in addition to their intention. Remember: if what you plan to say could be considered unprofessional, unwelcome, or offensive to a co-worker or customer, don’t say it.
  3. Making sure their social media activity aligns with any company policies. It is always a best practice to be respectful, fair, and courteous in one’s online interactions and to avoid egregious conduct.

Should an employee find themselves in an uncomfortable or unwelcome discussion, encourage them to:

  • Politely disengage from the conversation.
  • Address the comments in a respectful manner. Everyone’s opinions are to be respected and doing so is the only way to build a feeling of safety and trust among coworkers.
  • Respectfully shift the conversation to a different topic.
  • If they feel the discussion is becoming heated or turning ugly, make sure they know they can talk to a manager or Human Resources immediately — you do not want discussions to turn into arguments or worse.

Make sure you've taken the steps to ensure that employees know how and to whom they can raise a concern about unprofessionalism or harassment in the workplace.

In addition to providing tools to disengage, employers should to be proactive and address potential discussions with written policies that tie into the principles of the company’s culture and values.

A specific policy on politics is not generally recommended for a variety of reasons, but you should keep in mind that there are other policies that can help provide guardrails for political discussions in the workplace. Employers should already have a well-defined Code of Conduct, a policy against discrimination and harassment, and similar internal policies which set out expectations of professionalism and respect — if you don’t, that’s step 1. But you may want to also consider:

  1. a dress code that prohibits non-work-related logos, buttons, t-shirts to eliminate visual expressions of support in the workplace for any political party or candidate, with the caveat that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) affords both union and non-union employees some protection for messaging that connects to work-related issues, such as human rights or a candidate’s position on minimum wage and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently decided that, in certain fact-specific circumstances, political messages may be connected to prior protected activity and thus is protected speech;
  2. a policy that restricts an employee’s use of company equipment and resources for non-work-related purposes, which could prohibit employees from displaying political viewpoints as their Teams or Zoom background. Company equipment and resources generally include work computers, email, physical and electronic bulletin boards, messaging platforms, printers, copiers, etc.;
  3. a non-solicitation policy to prohibit employees from soliciting for donations, campaigning or distributing political materials in the workplace. However, this is another area where you want to ensure the policy language is specific and in accordance with all applicable law, especially in not restricting rights guaranteed by the NLRA or that is in conflict with NLRB decisions. Otherwise, collecting orders for Girl Scout cookies could be in violation or worse, a blanket prohibition could be a violation of the NLRA which provides several exceptions for solicitation for unionization; or
  4. a social media policy to ensure employees are not making statements that appear to be on behalf of the employer, or to prohibit use of employer-sponsored social media accounts to post their political viewpoints.

While it is not uncommon for employees to question whether such restrictions inhibit their right to free speech, it is a common misconception that employers cannot address political speech in the workplace because of the First Amendment. Freedom of speech is actually the prohibition against the government curtailing speech, not private companies or individuals. This means that more flexibility is afforded to private sector employers to impose reasonable restrictions on political discussions in the workplace.

However, employers will need to balance the steps they take to ensure their policies do not have a chilling effect on their employees’ ability to engage in otherwise legally protected activities.

For example, employers should be aware of what protections exist in any given location, as some jurisdictions protect employees who engage in lawful, off-duty conduct, including political activities in support of any candidate or political party as well as other similar forms of advocacy. Likewise, employers should review any time off policies (paid or otherwise) to ensure they are in compliance with any state voting leave requirements applicable to their employee base.

As noted before, the NLRA also provides employees certain rights to discuss their working conditions. Working conditions involve things such as rates of pay, benefits, safety, and other terms and conditions of employment. To the extent that political discussions are occurring that have to do with topics that implicate working conditions, the enforcement of policies that may otherwise implicate a heated discussion should be navigated carefully.

Similarly, most states have enacted laws to establish parameters on the type of prohibitions an employer can assert over employees. Some common prohibitions include:

  • Coercing or influencing employees to support or oppose a specific candidate or issue;
  • Threats to prevent employees from participating in political activities;
  • Discharging employees based on political affiliations;
  • Disciplining an employee for lawful, off-duty political activity- including online activity; and/or
  • Maintaining records of an employee’s off-duty political activity;

So, assuming you've got the right policies in place, and you've properly calibrated them to avoid any overreaching, the next consideration is educating your employees about how their political discussions can implicate those policies. Employers should ensure that employees:  

  • receive clear communication of the company’s expectations to act with professionalism and respect, 
  • understand that their political speech can be restricted at work,
  • are educated on what is considered discrimination and harassment under their company policy and the law,
  • acknowledge those policies which set boundaries related to social media and statements on behalf of the company, standards of professionalism, and prohibitions on discrimination and harassment, 
  • know how and where to report violations of company policies, such as a Helpline or their Human Resources representative,  
  • understand that concerns of unprofessionalism, discrimination, or harassment related to political speech in the workplace will be promptly addressed,
  • carefully consider whether their political speech may be perceived as unprofessional or unwelcome and offensive (e.g., discriminatory or harassing) to others by implicating protected categories, and
  • have access to Employee Assistance Program (EAP) information. It is also likely that your EAP provider will be able to provide tips for how and when employees might discuss politics and information about managing the stress some experience in an election year.

Politics will always create emotional reactions, but by implementing policies such as these and educating your workforce on workplace expectations for professionalism and respect, employers have a greater likelihood that this political season will not negatively impact their workplace.

© 2024 TriNet Group, Inc. All rights reserved. This communication is for informational purposes only, is not legal, tax or accounting advice, and is not an offer to sell, buy or procure insurance. TriNet is the single-employer sponsor of all its benefit plans, which does not include voluntary benefits that are not ERISA-covered group health insurance plans and enrollment is voluntary. Official plan documents always control and TriNet reserves the right to amend the benefit plans or change the offerings and deadlines. 

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