When political discourse in the workplace goes wrong

(Editor’s note: For a less legal perspective on this topic, see “Do’s and don’ts of talking politics at work.”)

‘Tis the season when political discussions abound — on social media, on television and radio, at home, at family gatherings, and inevitably at work. There’s nothing wrong with a little healthy argument now and then, right? Oftentimes, this is true. But employers have a responsibility to run a workplace that is not only productive, but that is free from discrimination, harassment, and other conduct that may violate employees’ rights under a host of federal, state, and local employment laws. 

At first blush, discussing politics at work does not seem to present direct legal risk. After all, identifying with a particular political group does not place you in a protected class that would implicate fair employment laws prohibiting discrimination. However, there can be more than meets the eye when it comes to the dangers of politics in the workplace. Let’s look at two scenarios: First, where an employee perceives voting in accordance with his or her employer’s political views as a job requirement, and second, a cautionary tale where an employee’s performance is suffering as a result of political involvement.

1. Could the employer be perceived as holding a specific political view and expecting its employees to subscribe to the same view? 

This can be particularly sticky in industries where political lobbying is active. For example, imagine that you own a company in an industry that would benefit from a piece of legislation that didn’t pass last session but is likely to be reintroduced the next legislative session. The legislation is supported or even sponsored by a particular legislator who is up for reelection. Because that piece of legislation is key to the success of your business, as you see it, you support that legislator. Your business is even a member of an advocacy organization that expends large amounts of time and money on following the legislation and meeting with legislators regarding the importance of it passing.

You would love it if everyone you know voted for that legislator because it would help your business. So naturally you aren’t shy about making that view known at work. Now, because you are not shy about your belief that reelecting this legislator would directly impact your business, you may have employees thinking that supporting that legislator is an expectation in connection with their job with your company. Well, it cannot be. A person’s vote is his or her own constitutional right and no one can infringe on it, including employers.

Keep in mind, also, that employees in executive roles, or even in a supervisory capacity, could be seen by employees as representing the employer’s views when discussing politics. This can lead employees to believe that a certain stance is required as a term of their employment or to feel fearful that differing views could lead to problems with their employment. In this scenario, the opinion of the employee in the executive or supervisory role could be even be the opposite of the company’s, which may cause additional issues. 

2. Is political talk at work impacting an employee’s performance? 

If so, you certainly have a practical problem. But you may have a legal problem, as well.

Consider a situation where you have a female employee who is a staunch supporter of women’s rights in this country; she is a self-proclaimed feminist who spends her free time, and increasingly too much work time, reading about political issues affecting women, posting support for women’s issues on social media, discussing political issues affecting women with coworkers, and expressing her support for the candidate most likely to support women.

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If you discipline this employee for performance, and the performance issues may be a result of political discussions, the employee could get the impression that the discipline was directly related to the employee’s political views. This could lead you down a messy path. If an employer wishes to take adverse action against the employee because she has spent too much time discussing politics instead of doing her work, the employer is going to want to approach the handling of the situation carefully as the employee could perceive the discussion as a personal affront to her gender. Did other, male coworkers receive the same discussion regarding discussing politics at work? Suddenly, we see how fair employment laws can govern how employers deal with politics in the workplace.

Now, political views do not per se place an employee in a protected class, as mentioned above. However, political topics can easily intertwine with those regarding race, religion, gender, and other characteristics that do place individuals in protected classes. This illustrates the importance of well thought out and closely followed work policies.

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