It seems that everyone is having political discussions these days, but it’s best to keep heated debates out of the workplace.
Right after Election Day earlier this month, before a winner in the presidential race had even been declared, Amy McAndrew was conducting an in-person training session for one of the 600 member companies of the MidAtlantic Employers’ Association (MEA) when she stumbled upon an interesting conversation.
McAndrew is the director of member legal services for the MEA, which helps businesses of all sizes establish compliant and effective HR policies and create a healthy work culture. While most of her conferences have been virtual this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this one was actually in person, and she quickly realized that not all of the executives were on the same page politically.
“It was pretty clear that the people at the top disagreed fundamentally on what the direction of the country should be,” she says. “They were pretty playful about it, so I don’t think it was a big deal, but if employees hear them having that discussion and it doesn’t come off as playful, then employees start to think they can do the same thing. Now they’re spending five, 10 or 15 minutes having a political discussion and not doing their work. So from a productivity standpoint it is a big deal.”
Although politics is considered a taboo subject in polite company, as well as the workplace, it has long been common for coworkers to discuss the issues of the day, especially during an election year. In recent years, however, the potential for those discussions to escalate into heated arguments has risen for a number of reasons, from the personalities of the political figures themselves to the tension in the world around us.
“When employees feel strongly about an issue, they are just as likely to discuss it at work as they are to discuss it at home or outside of the office/online,” says Susan Hodges, an attorney at Parker McCay who chairs the firm’s labor and employment department.
“Workplace discussions about political issues can lead to a loss of productivity, loss of employee focus and sometimes even disputes between employees. If this year’s election has shown us anything, it is that we are a deeply divided country, and that divide doesn’t disappear when employees get to the office.”
McAndrew has been an employment attorney for nearly 25 years but doesn’t recall the climate ever being this volatile.
“It really feels like it’s worse,” she says. “I think people have always had these conversations but I think social media makes it worse. That has a huge impact on this because everybody is out there on social media getting riled up anyway and then you bring those conversations into the workplace. … The COVID environment probably doesn’t help because people are on edge to begin with. There’s a lot of stress.”
In a weird way, she adds, the pandemic has been helpful this year because many people are working remotely from home instead of side by side with other employees, lessening the opportunity for disputes. But it is still an area employers want to keep an eye on, especially at a time like this when election results are being challenged and supporters on both sides are passionate about their candidates.
“No matter what they’re talking about—whether they’re talking about the terrible Eagles game yesterday or they’re talking about this stuff—you don’t want your employees to be distracted,” McAndrew says. “To completely ban political discussion is probably not realistic, but there are certainly things employers can do, like putting parameters around civility. We have to respect everybody else’s viewpoint even if we don’t agree with it. We certainly want to set a tone at the top. We can’t tell our employees to do one thing if our execs and management are doing something else.
“We do a lot of anti-harassment training but we also have add-on training about civility in the workplace, about respectful workplace conduct,” she continues. “In this current environment we have a lot of members and non-member companies taking advantage of training like that.”
In addition to a negative effect on productivity, political disagreements can lead to deteriorating relationships, not only between fellow employees but also between employees and their superiors or even with customers. Barbara Pachter, a business etiquette and communications expert based in Cherry Hill, has addressed the issue of politics in the workplace in her book, The Essentials of Business Etiquette: How to Eat, Greet and Tweet Your Way to Success.
“People have very strong opinions and if they start voicing them, I now have to work with this person who has opinions that are very opposite of mine,” Pachter says. “If this person keeps bringing them up, I’m not going to like it. Eventually it can lead to some real difficulties. So just keep it out of the office; keep it out of the workplace.”
Pachter agrees with McAndrew that social media has created more problems, and cites one woman she knows who stopped using her personal trainer because of his extreme political posts. She has not heard of similar cases in the workplace but advises her clients not to let political affiliation affect their career.
“It’s gotten more extreme,” she says. “You can have opinions, but I don’t see in a job description that you must be a Democrat or Republican. That’s not the way this country works—or should work. I can work for you whether we have the same political beliefs or not, as long as everybody just keeps their opinions out of the office.”
Businesses may also choose not to air any political programs on TVs in the workplace and prohibit the hanging of signs or stickers in an office or cubicle. Some may raise the issue of freedom of speech, but as McAndrew notes, “The First Amendment says that the government can’t infringe on speech; it doesn’t say anything about a private employer.”
Legal issues come when employers allow certain types of speech but not others. For example, they can’t say that Black Lives Matter pins are acceptable but not MAGA pins, or vice versa. If soliciting for a political cause is forbidden, then it also is for a charitable campaign.
“It’s either you allow solicitation and distribution or you don’t,” McAndrew says. “That also comes up if there’s a union trying to organize your workforce. You can’t pick and choose what you keep and what you ban. That’s why I always say to people that it’s OK to say you can’t solicit and you can’t pass out literature, but as soon as you do that you can’t sell Girl Scout cookies or you can’t ask for people to support your child’s sports fundraiser. It’s an all-or-nothing kind of approach.”
McAndrew says legal complications also arise when politic disagreements lead down a troubled road involving gender, race or religion and anti-harassment laws are broken.
Because of these concerns, Hodges encourages employers to seek counsel before implementing any rules for workplace discussions.
“In my experience, it is rare for a company to have a training session regarding political beliefs, but a policy is a good idea as long as it is legally compliant and non-discriminatory,” she says. “There are certain requirements for a ‘no politics at the office’ policy, so it is a good idea to speak to your lawyer about those requirements so that you do not violate any federal or state law in trying to keep the peace at work. In addition, any such policy must be enforced uniformly.”
In the end, the best way to prevent any of this is to limit the talk of Joe Biden and Donald Trump or anything in between.
“There are so many other topics you can talk about, and not just the weather,” Pachter says. “You can talk about COVID but keep it non-political and talk about the new vaccines coming. You can talk about sports; you can talk about TV and what shows are back and what shows aren’t back. You can keep it about work and talk about what you’re doing for your clients. [Politics is] just too divisive a topic. Standard etiquette says don’t talk about sex, politics or religion; that hasn’t changed. It’s true in a social media world too, even though people don’t always follow it.”
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Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 10, Issue 11 (November 2020).
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