Talking Politics at Work Poses Risks to Employers and Employees
This election cycle seems to be sparking more office conflicts than previous campaigns, but talking politics at work is a risky proposition for employees and employers alike.
Strife from the divisive presidential campaign season is bleeding over into the workplace, according to a recent survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management.
In a poll of 457 human resource professionals, 26 percent reported an increase in “perceived greater political volatility” in the office this election cycle. And the problems with talking politics at work may worsen as November approaches, said Evren Esen, SHRM’s director of survey research programs.
“Businesses need to be aware, even if they haven’t had any issues in the past, that this particular election cycle could be different,” Esen said.
For the purposes of SHRM’s survey, which was compiled in May, volatility means increased tension, hostility, or argumentation among coworkers directly related to the ongoing political battle for the White House, she said. SHRM released its findings at its annual convention earlier this month.
Of those surveyed, about 67 percent reported their organizations lacked a policy—written or otherwise—regulating political activities in the office. Esen believes that those that do likely adopted one after a workplace incident.
Regulating political speech is a tricky situation for employers, said Karen Glickstein, an attorney who specializes in employment law. She recently penned a column outlining tips and advice for supervisors after receiving a glut of inquiries—many related to on-the-job incidents—from clients.
Both employers and employees can take steps to protect themselves, Glickstein said. For supervisors, it can be as simple as reminding their staff about workplace harassment or discrimination policies. Employees, on the other hand, must recognize that the First Amendment does not always apply in the workplace, she said.
It’s a question that seems to come up with each election cycle, Glickstein said, though “I think it’s probably more this year than I can remember in past years.”
Where it gets trickier is during off hours, particularly with the rise of social media. Can action be taken against workers who list their employer on sites where they also espouse political views, like Twitter and Facebook? Not necessarily.
Though only four states explicitly protect workers engaging in political activity afterhours, Glickstein said the National Labor Relations Board increasingly has sided with employees disciplined for politicking outside of the office.
But “every situation is going to be different,” she said.
SHRM, which hasn’t before gauged the amount of workplace incidents stemming from political disagreements, plans to follow up in October. Esen said reaction from members has been positive so far, as many recognize that it could become an issue.
“Not a lot of organizations have policies, but this is something to consider and talk to employees about as well,” Esen said. “Even if they don’t have a formal policy, even if it’s kind of unwritten, encourage employees to be respectful of diversity. Really, this falls into the diversity of ideas and opinions and attitudes. Regardless of whether people agree with each other, they do need to respect one another.”