They’re here…no, not a poltergeist but political ads (which sometimes seem like a poltergeist in our televisions).  And they are only going to increase in frequency and tone as the days and weeks continue to creep further into fall.
         We see them on television, interrupting our favorite shows and on social media along with the unsolicited political views and opinions of our friends, family and acquaintances. Sure, we choose to watch TV and participate voluntarily on social media outlets but what should we do when politics creep into work? With our country’s viewpoints further apart than ever before it’s safe to assume that political discussions aren’t always a peaceful sharing of opinions where everyone shakes hands and walks away agreeing to have respect for the opposition (we can wish though.) What rights do employees have to be protected from these conversations vs. our right to freedom of speech? Where should employers draw the line on what is reasonable and attempt to enforce a politics-free environment at work.
         A couple interesting things to know is that enforcing a politics-free environment is permissible by the National Labor Relations Act.  Also, employees don’t have a right to freedom of speech at work, although there are certain rules in place to protect worker’s speech in certain situations, but political debates and discussions in the workplace isn’t one of them.
          Recently, an employee disclosed to HR that her political views were different from the majority of her coworkers and while she wasn’t engaging in political discussions with them hearing the [derogatory] things they said in the breakroom about people with her views and opinions hurt her feelings and made her feel uncomfortable. Is this just a case of sensitivity or could something like this turn into a hostile work environment, and how often do things like this happen? Last year Randstad surveyed workers about their experience with politics in the workplace and over half, 55 percent of 807 respondents, had witnessed heated political discussions at work, and more than a third, 38 percent, had participated in them. Although 38 percent said they’d changed their opinions based on discussions with colleagues, 72 percent felt anxious when heated arguments occurred, and 44 percent said the arguments hurt their productivity.
Instead of making the focus so heavy on the topic of conversation [politics], it may be easier to continuously focus on keeping workplace conduct civil, at all times regardless of the topic at hand. The basics of workplace civility include appreciating diversity, being respectful and treating others in a professional and kind manner. Let’s look at Google, in an effort to help employees avoid discussions that are disruptive to the workplace they stated in a memo to employees “What you say and do matters and can have a lasting impact.”  Employees were also asked not to make insulting or demeaning statements against individuals, groups or public figures.  Google isn’t outlawing political chatter but they are requiring that all conversations are respectful and don’t create disruption in the workplace.
           The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is recommending Workplace Civility as the best course of action in preventing political discussions from getting out of hand.  They recommend that employees are encouraged to have conversations about topics which would “enrich relationships with co-workers.” If these conversations don’t build the relationship, they should avoid the topic, especially if it’s disrespectful. It’s been said that healthy discourse in conversations among employees is beneficial and can be engaging for workers…as long as it remains respectful.
            Let’s revisit our employee mentioned above. In the situation described she certainly does have a point and should expect her employer to take some action toward requiring a more civil work environment, and soon.  The employer may want to take a nod from Google and instead of taking a hard-line stance against all political discussions remind employees about the basics of Workplace Civility and require that conversations aren’t negative or insulting towards others’ opinions or viewpoints and instead are building the relationship vs. tearing it down.
           Now that we know the rules for political discussions at work, let’s get our employees to exercise their right to vote!