Keeping the Peace with Political Discussions at Work - Elections 2020

October 6, 2020
Keeping the Peace with Political Discussions at Work - Elections 2020

2020 General elections are fast approaching and as the American public is getting ready to vote on November 3, there are certain considerations to make this election season. While we are still in the midst of the pandemic, it is important for employers to encourage their employees to exercise their civic duty and also making their safety and the safety of their communities a top priority. In our recent blog we highlighted different options you can follow to vote safely during this unique election.

Beyond the safety of your employees, employers should also be aware of the increased chance that an employee’s political statements can create tension that undermines the workplace culture and can even result in complaints of discrimination or harassment. Not only is there tension among various political views, but statements about politics can implicate protected categories such as gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, national origin, disability, or veteran status.

While employers can hope that employees avoid talking about politics to avoid negatively impacting relationships with other colleagues or the culture at large, employers need to provide some guidance to their employees on how to manage political conversations without offending other colleagues. These seemingly unavoidable discussions can undermine company culture and create interruptions in productivity, morale, and more. According to a survey conducted by Gartner in February 2020 47% of survey participants felt the U.S. presidential election had impacted their ability to get work done.

Despite the stated negative impact, political discussions happen anyway. According to a January 2020 Glassdoor poll, 60% of participants responded they “believe discussing politics at work is unacceptable.” Yet, 57% of participants in the same study responded they had talked about politics while on the job. Additionally, personal life and work have become more enmeshed with the increased number of employees working from home since spring 2020.

Even in organizations that are perceived to be politically homogenous, there are likely employees with differing opinions who may feel excluded by assumptions of shared political beliefs. This is why it is important for employers take steps to protect the company, their employees, and their workplace culture.

What can be done?

A common misconception is that employers cannot address political speech because of freedom of speech. But, freedom of speech is the prohibition against the government curtailing speech, not private companies or individuals. This means that government employees have a constitutional right to free speech, but there is no such right in the private sector. So, it is up to private employers to determine expectations related to discourse at work, making sure there is policy that encompasses those boundaries and expectations, communicating the policy, and enforcing it even-handedly. We’ve included policy suggestions at the end of this post.

One approach is to ban all workplace expressions in support of any political party or candidate. An example of such a policy is that of Goodyear Tires, which has stated that they ask employees to refrain from workplace expressions, verbal or otherwise, in support of political campaigning for any candidate or political party as well as other similar forms of advocacy that fall outside the scope of equity issues.

Such an approach is an example of setting expectations that apply equally to all political parties and candidates, while avoiding limiting employee discussions about their working conditions. This is important because the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) gives employees rights to discuss their working conditions.

Another approach is to implement dress code policies that prohibit all non-work-related logos, buttons, t-shirts. While this is an option, it is one to consider carefully as once implemented it’s important to address all violations and not just those that go against popular opinion within the particular team, location, or organization.

Employers may also want to share information on and promote the use of their Employee Assistance Program (EAP). TriNet partners with FEI for the EAP program. They provide tips for how and when employees might discuss politics and information about handling the stress some experience in an election year.

What else can be done?

One positive way to address the upcoming election is to promote voter engagement by employees without promoting any party or candidate. This can be accomplished through policies allowing paid time off to vote or paid time off to volunteer as a poll worker.

After the presidential election on November 3, employers should be prepared for a good portion of employees to be elated and the others demoralized. Anticipating post-election workforce reactions is all the more reason to focus on voting, the election process itself and expectations for conduct in advance of the election.

Every election we have an opportunity to see democracy in action and participate by voting.

Tips on creating a policy:

When implementing a policy related to political speech

  • Define the boundaries in a way that applies to all candidates, issues and political parties.
  • Tie the boundaries to the company’s culture and values.
  • Don’t restrict employees’ discussion of their working conditions.
  • Prohibit the use of company assets, resources, and time to support any political candidate or party.
  • Prohibit political views or opinions on social media for accounts affiliated with the organization.
  • Consider implementing or updating the dress code to uniformly prohibit all non-work-related logos, buttons, t-shirts.

When communicating a new policy related to political speech

  • Preview to managers and provide clear guidance of what is expected of them.
  • Take the opportunity to remind employees of policies related to social media and statements on behalf of the company, standards of professionalism, and prohibitions on harassment.
  • Direct employees about where to ask questions about the new policy.

Once the policy is in place

  • Enforce it evenly across all parts of the organization and related to all political candidates and parties.
  • Promptly address employee concerns about political speech in the workplace.

In addition, here is a link to our ‘2020 voting plan’ an interactive guide to ensure you have all the information needed to vote in this election. 

This communication is for informational purposes only; it is not legal, tax or accounting advice; and is not an offer to sell, buy or procure insurance.

This post may contain hyperlinks to websites operated by parties other than TriNet. Such hyperlinks are provided for reference only. TriNet does not control such web sites and is not responsible for their content. Inclusion of such hyperlinks on does not necessarily imply any endorsement of the material on such websites or association with their operators.

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