Managing Political Talk in the Workplace

October 6, 2020 - minute read

These are emotional times. Many American workers have very strong opinions about the upcoming presidential election—and when they express them 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 reevaluating 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/prohibiting politics in the workplace—as well as the rights of employers and workers with regards to 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 curtail 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 2016, before the last presidential election, the American Psychological Association partnered with Harris Poll to survey nearly 1,000 workers on their experiences. The survey results were split. While not all respondents were impacted, 27%—more than one-quarter of respondents—claimed they were negatively affected by a politically-charged work environment. Furthermore:

  • 13% of workers admitted they were less productive as a result
  • 17% of workers reported feeling greater stress during election season
  • 20% of workers said they avoided specific coworkers because of their political views
  • 13% of workers claimed they felt isolated from coworkers because of their beliefs.

Interesting, younger workers (defined as those under 34 years old) were impacted more negatively than their older peers, with nearly one-quarter reporting they were less productive. For employers making a concerted effort to attract and retain younger workers, this may factor into their decision-making.

What Employers Can Do

Contrary to what many believe, the First Amendment of the Constitution does not guarantee all workers freedom of speech at work. According to employment law experts, 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 the 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 how state laws factor in (for example, California prohibits employers from adopting policies that prevent employees from engaging in political activities). They 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 National Labor Relations Act is generally associated with union workers, a number of provisions apply to non-union 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 non-union workers. Sometimes, such discussions overlap with politics.

For example, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has expressed support for raising the federal minimum wage. If workers discuss this in terms of their own work situation, that conversation may well be considered a 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.

However, here is one recently noteworthy shift. Until recently, the National Labor Relations Board safeguarded profane, sexists and racist and sexist remarks made by workers engaged in otherwise protected activities. In late July of this year, the board issued new guidance, establishing that workers who violate their employers’ anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies while engaged in protected activities are subject to the same level of discipline as they would be in other circumstances.

Managing Compliance—and Finding Clarity--in Tricky Times

In many respects, 2020 has been an especially challenging year for employers. Of course, for employers managing an hourly workforce, mastering labor compliance is extremely tricky at the best of times.

At EPAY, we help such employers leverage our HR software as a powerful labor compliance tool that encompasses federal wage and hour regulations, ACA compliance, and hundreds of state and local mandates regarding paid leave laws, fair workweek legislation, and beyond.

In addition, our clients have access to our 24/7 compliance portal and on-demand HR Consulting Services. In short, they’re never alone. Learn how our HCM system can help you improve compliance and efficiency—and cut your labor costs, too.

Filed Under: Human Resources