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Managing Political Talk in the Workplace

August 30, 2022 - minute read

In recent years, political discourse has become much more commonplace in the workplace. 

As the midterm elections approach, companies must understand that many U.S. workers have very strong opinions about our current political state—and when they express those views at work, conflicts can quickly arise. In the current climate, it doesn’t take much for political discussions to turn ugly. Sometimes, a simple hat or T-shirt bearing a political slogan is enough to ignite a feud.

These days, many employers are reassessing their policies regarding political conversations, solicitations and apparel in the workplace. Such detailed reevaluation should include a review of the pros and cons of allowing or prohibiting politics in the workplace—as well as the rights of employers and workers concerning this subject.

The Effects of Talking Politics in the Workplace

Some employers believe that allowing their workers to assert their political and social justice views is part of nurturing an open-minded, pro-employee brand. They may even fear that they’ll hurt morale—and incur negative publicity—if they try to restrict employee self-expression.

However, other employers maintain that allowing employees to openly express their political opinions can lead to conflict in the workforce and, when workers are engaged with the public, alienate customers.

What does research tell us? In a recent CNBC Momentive Workforce survey, numbers were divided when it came to public political debate. A little over half (56%) of U.S. workers said they approve of business leaders speaking on social and political issues. However, only 32% of workers in the U.S. said they would support their company’s leadership, regardless of their advocacy efforts. Furthermore:

  • Women are more likely than men to say they approve of business leaders who speak up about social and political issues.
  • Younger workers are more likely than older workers to say they approve of business leaders who speak up on these topics.
  • Black, Asian and Hispanic people are more likely than white people to say they approve of business leaders who speak up on social and political issues.

Interestingly, 4 out of 10 workers noted in the survey that they would be likely to quit their job if their organization took a stance on a political issue that they do not agree with. In addition, 48% of young U.S. workers, ages 18 to 24, said that they would likely quit their job if they disagreed with political stances made by organizational leaders. For employers making a concerted effort to attract and retain younger workers, this may factor into candidates’ decision-making.

What Employers Can Do

Contrary to what many believe, the First Amendment does not guarantee all workers the freedom of speech at work. According to legal content specialists, with some exceptions, private companies do have the right to limit workers’ political expression during work hours.

The key is to be fair and consistent and to apply policies evenly across the political spectrum. Managers can’t allow some forms of behavior to slide while disallowing others, regardless of their—or their employers’—point of view.

In addition, employers can implement dress-code policies that ban political and social messaging. They can prohibit workers from posting nonwork-related messages on company property, including intranets and bulletin boards.

However, there are some limitations. Employers need to be mindful of state laws. For example, California prohibits employers from adopting policies that prevent employees from engaging in political activities. Companies should also be aware of areas where their policies may come into conflict with other federal regulations, especially the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

The NLRA: Where Politics Meets Protected Speech

While the NLRA is generally associated with union workers, several provisions apply to nonunion workers, too.

Specifically, Section 7 of the NLRA protects workers’ rights to discuss wages, hours and working conditions for the purposes of collective bargaining and other mutual protections—including nonunion workers. Sometimes, such discussions overlap with politics.

For example, President Joe Biden increased the minimum wage for federal workers and contractors to $15 an hour in January 2022. The overall federal minimum wage has stood at $7.25 since 2009 even though Biden has urged congress to raise it. If workers discuss this situation in terms of their own work environment, that conversation may well be considered protected activity under the NLRA.

And while employers can ban political solicitation during active work times, the NLRA allows workers to support political candidates during their breaks, both paid and unpaid.

Managing Compliance—and Finding Clarity—in Tricky Times

In many respects, 2020 was an especially challenging year for employers. And that has trickled over the past two years, too. Of course, for employers managing an hourly workforce, mastering labor compliance is extremely tricky in the best of times.

In situations such as these, it is essential to have an HR software that doubles as a powerful labor compliance tool that encompasses federal wage and hour regulations, Affordable Care Act (ACA) compliance and hundreds of state and local mandates regarding paid leave laws, fair workweek legislation and beyond.

Having 24/7 access to a compliance portal and on-demand HR consulting services can greatly relieve the stress of this process. Your HCM system should help you improve compliance and efficiency—and cut your labor costs, too, regardless of the political situation at hand.

Filed Under: Human Resources