fighting in the office

If you’ve felt like people seem angrier this political season, you’re not wrong. You can feel the tenor of political conflict in the news and numerous studies also point to an increasing political polarization broken down by party lines. In April, Lynn Vavreck wrote about this in the New York Times: American Anger: It’s Not the Economy. It’s the Other Party. Among the article’s observations:

That Democrats and Republicans have different views on issues is not surprising. But recent work by Stanford University’s Shanto Iyengar and his co-authors shows something else has been brewing in the electorate: a growing hostility toward members of the opposite party. This enmity, they argue, percolates into opinions about everyday life.

Partisans, for example, are more concerned that their children might marry someone of the opposite party (vs. people in Britain today and the United States in 1960). They found partisans surprisingly willing to discriminate against people who are not members of their political party. We’ve entered an age of party-ism.

It shouldn’t be surprising that employers are seeing dissension carry over into the workplace: Election 2016 in the Workplace: HR Reports Some Political Volatility at Work, SHRM Survey Shows

This election year is bringing greater political volatility to the workplace, with slightly more than one-quarter of respondents to a new Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey reporting tension, hostility or arguments among co-workers because of political affiliation.

While a majority of HR professionals (72 percent) said their organizations discourage political activities in the workplace, only 24 percent of organizations have a written policy and 8 percent have an unwritten policy about political activities in the workplace.

The political season has always been a minefield in the workplace. People can be very passionate about political issues and their candidates and there are many other underlying hot-buttons, such as race, abortion, gay rights, guns, terrorism, immigration and religion, to name but a few. There’s something to offend everybody. Even a conversation that starts with a little good-natured ribbing can quickly turn uncomfortable. Tempers can flare. Resentments can ensue.

Can your forbid political discussion in the workplace? It’s complicated. We resurface some thoughts from a prior election, and then cite some experts. In the past, we’ve suggested:

Instead of imposing restrictions, which may be difficult to enforce, some experts suggest that common sense should rule the day. Employers may want to establish some ground rules by re-emphasizing the values of professionalism, respect, and tolerance for others – including differences of political opinion. It may be a good time to dust off and circulate your organization’s “code of conduct” from your Employee Handbook.

Focus on productivity – don’t allow discussions of any variety to disrupt the workplace. Be prepared to intervene and nip things in the bud if things get heated or argumentative. And it should go without saying that, as an employer, you should avoid any adverse employment action related to an employee’s political opinions.

Employment law experts weigh in on politics in the workplace

Here are some additional opinions and resources from HR and employment law experts:

Recently, Yuki Noguchi or NPR tackled the issue:  In 2016, Talking Politics Can Make Things Uncomfortable At Work. She motes:

For employers, however, regulating political discussion is a tricky balance. Segal says discussion of minimum wage, equal pay, paid leave — things that affect working conditions — might be protected by federal labor laws. On the other hand, careless comments about race, gender or religion could also lead to harassment or discrimination claims.

Susan Schoenfeld, a senior legal editor at Business and Legal Resources, a publication for employers, urges employers to be very vigilant about what their employees are doing or saying at the office.

“It only takes one person to have that inflammatory discussion to alienate someone or cause a hostile work environment or potential harassment claim,” she says.

Schoenfeld says the law gives private employers wide latitude for regulating political speech during work hours.

Fiona W. Ong also discusses the issues in  The Labor & Employment Report. Her article Political Discussions in the Workplace offers some answers and thoughts on prohibiting political discussions in the workplace

In National Law Review, Karen R. Glickstein discusses the allow/disallow issue further in Workplace Conduct: Politics at the Water Cooler? We particularly like the considerations that she offers to employers:

• Remind employees of all anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies;

• Remind employees that a discussion of politics does not give license to bully or harass other employees, notwithstanding what is reported on the news;

• Private employers in many states (but not all) can ban political discussions among employees or between employees and customers, vendors or other third parties (but if this choice is made, the policy must be enforced consistently);

• Review and update dress code policies if the employer wants to prohibit political speech on clothing, buttons, etc.; and

• If the company maintains a “non-solicitation” policy, make sure that it is enforced consistently.


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