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Workplace Politics: Cooling the Debates... Continued

As discussions about the first Presidential debate swirl, we continue our discussion of politics in the workplace.

Political activity conducted by the employer, such as solicitations for campaign contributions, visits by candidates, allowing employees to use company time to volunteer for a specific campaign should be considered parallel to employee initiated activity, and therefore, covered under any policy put in place by the company. There are strict federal election laws surrounding public corporations engaged in political activities, regulating how employers can interact with all constituents. Private employers are subject to the same restrictions imposed upon their employees by any policy they put in place.

A policy limiting speech and activity in the workplace is likely to be meet with employee resistance, and seen as a limitation of freedom. Introduction of such a policy could be best approached through one-on-one discussions with employees, explaining that the policy is not to silence their beliefs and opinions, but to honor everyone’s differences. Honoring differences should be at the core of every employee handbook. Traditionally a Code of Conduct policy addresses respect for diverse opinions, beliefs, values and goals reflecting all employees equally. A Code of Conduct policy that recognizes a company’s diverse workforce is a great first step in working towards others policies and specifically one that addresses political speech.

Fostering respect for diverging points of view is a constant process, but can be highlighted by external events that filter into the workplace, such as elections. This heightened political season is a great time for Human Resources to offer training sessions on pertinent topics such as harassment, discrimination and situations that create a hostile work environment. Train your staff how to recognize a heated discussion, and how to diffuse one.

Cooling political conflict can be a slippery slope for managers and employers. The key to avoid conflict is recognizing when to step in between co-workers before conflicts escalate, productivity suffers and legal matters ensue. It may also be a good idea to repost the company harassment policy as a gentle reminder to employees that disagreements can lead to more serious accusations. Along with the harassment policy make sure your reporting and complaint system is clear, accessible and posted.

In our daily working lives, the political environment in the workplace may not be as strained as what is playing out in the real election arena.  A 2011 Monster.com survey indicated a favorable and stable workplace environment in which employers and employees felt they could freely express themselves politically without suffering or causing conflict.

52% of employees considered their workplace safe to express political views that are different from their co-workers.

79% of employees said it was not difficult to work with co-workers who did not hold the same political beliefs.

80% of employers expressed no concern about personal political views of their workforce, as long as they performed their jobs well.

Never-the-less as rhetoric heightens, employers need to ensure that political discussions at work stay cordial, do not offend, do not hurt employee morale and productivity, and do not lend to problems. Policies are always positive steps toward a safe and fair workplace. If it feels as though your company could benefit from the protection of a document specifically outlining the parameters of political speech and activities, do not hesitate to begin the process of putting that policy in place. As with all safeguards, it is better to be proactive than reactive, and protecting your company and your employees from potential volatile situations is good for everyone.

Preston Clark Worley is an associate with McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie & Kirkland, PLLC. Mr. Worley concentrates his practice in employment law, criminal defense, litigation and telecommunications. He is located in the firm’s Lexington office and can be reached at pworley@mmlk.com or at (859) 231-8780.

This article is intended as a summary of newly enacted federal law and does not constitute legal advice.

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