Navigating Politics In The Workplace

Laurel Cornell.

Laurel Cornell.

With the presidential election just days away, we are once again inundated with campaign ads, yard signs and yes, heated political discussions – both on TV and among family, friends and even coworkers. This can be uncomfortable in the workplace, where many of us spend so much of our time. Laurel Cornell, an attorney with Fisher & Phillips LLP, a labor and employment law firm that advises clients on a broad range of workplace issues, shares some thoughts about political discussion in the workplace – whether at election time or any time of the year.

Lori Kommor: Why is it important for employers to address the concerns of employees when it comes to political discussion in the workplace?

Laurel Cornell: As the 2012 presidential election approaches, employers must brace themselves for an inevitable spike in political banter in the workplace. With social and political issues such as healthcare reform and same sex marriage on the forefront, political passions can flare up at election time,
and beyond.

If not properly addressed, political discourse can present unique challenges to employers trying to maintain a working environment free from conflict and distraction. Seemingly innocuous remarks regarding any candidate or their political positions may offend employees, which can lead to an increase in discrimination and harassment claims. Such workplace distractions often result in lost productivity as well as a decline in employee morale. Beyond this, politically charged discussions in the workplace can alienate customers who are offended by or disagree with the opinions expressed
by employees.

L.K.: What can employers do to protect themselves from legal action as well as maintain a cohesive and productive workforce when divisive issues become a threat?

L.C.: While no plan is fool-proof, the following guidelines may help prevent unnecessary workplace conflict and distractions, and perhaps most importantly, costly litigation.

Refresh and retrain employees on relevant anti-harassment, anti-discrimination and equal employment opportunity policies. Describe the types of conduct prohibited by these policies, and emphasize that attacking any beliefs of other employees could be perceived as harassment. Additionally, encourage employees to promptly report any political speech or activity they deem harassing or in violation of
company policy.

If your company policies or employee handbooks don’t already contain one, consider adding a code of conduct advising employees that failure to respect divergent opinions and values may warrant disciplinary action. Similarly, because heated discussions may be sparked from political buttons, stickers or other signage displayed by employees, employers may want to amend existing dress code and appearance policies to address political apparel.