It seems that just about everything is political. With the mid-term elections fast approaching, there are strong feelings that are being expressed on conventional and social media as well as in homes and workplaces. What are small businesses supposed to do about such expressions in the workplace? (The following is adapted from a blog posted a couple of years ago.)
When it comes to politics in the workplace, small businesses will want to consider:
Employers must be mindful of the law. Individuals have a constitutional right to free speech. This right bars the government from restricting speech; it doesn’t limit private employers from imposing limitations in the workplace. But even if there is no constitutional ban on employer restrictions to political speech, other laws may do so.
Some states have political activity and free speech protections for employees of private employers, making it unlawful to discipline or discharge a worker for the exercise of political rights. Employers that impede such actions may be discriminating against employees and subject to legal action. So, what can employers do to limit political speech in the workplace? Can they take action against employees who post political messages on social media? Employers must tread lightly when it comes to any restrictions on speech; they may be viewed as discriminatory, depending on the context.
Under National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) rules, employers cannot ban employees from discussing work conditions and unionizing, and it may be inevitable for politics to creep into such conversations. Is it possible to draw any lines? This may be difficult.
As already suggested, it’s difficult to fix policies on speech and behavior in the workplace. Clearly, an owner can set an example of appropriate speech and behavior. Avoid discussions about political candidates, don’t display political paraphernalia (buttons, hats, and bumper stickers), and don’t respond to invitations to debate issues of the day.
An owner is permitted to ban campaigning in the workplace. This includes, for example, prohibiting any display or distribution of political materials.
In setting business policies, I suggest that keeping a couple of famous quotations in mind can go a long way in helping to prevent animosity, harassment, uncomfortableness, and other unwanted feelings in the workplace during this contentious political season.
“The less said the better.” – Jane Austen.
“You should respect each other and refrain from disputes; you should not, like oil and water, repel each other, but should like milk and water, mingle together.” – Buddha
Be prepared to comply with state law rules on time off for voting in November. SHRM lists 30 states that require time off for voting; the District of Columbia also has such a law. The rules vary from state to state regarding the amount of time off that must be given (typically 2 to 4 hours) and whether this is paid leave (such as in Alaska, California, Colorado, and Illinois). Election Day this year is Tuesday, November 8th.