Your HR Plan for Handling Politics in the Workplace

Last Updated on October 13, 2020 by bigfish-admin

Whether working remote or physically in the office, there are conversations happening about external divisive issues within companies. While the statement, “never mix politics or religion with business,” still rings true, it is harder to adhere to in our highly polarized environment, when even seemingly benign statements can cause conflict. Businesses need to have a plan in place to deal with potentially difficult situations that arise involving politics. 

A 2019 study conducted by SHRM shows just how the country’s political divisiveness affects the workplace: 

  • 56% said discussions of politics in the workplace have become more common over the last four years.
  • 42% personally experienced political disagreements in the workplace.
  • 34% said their workplace is not inclusive of differing political perspectives.
  • 12% personally experienced political affiliation bias.

This heightened political tension can affect both individual health and overall company productivity. A 2017 study conducted by APA found: 

  • 40% said the divisive political environment had led to at least one negative outcome – either poorer work quality, lower productivity, or a negative view of coworkers.
  • 26% said political debates at work had them feeling tense (a notable increase from 17% in 2016). 
  • 21% said they felt more cynical and negative at work because of political talk (a notable increase from 15% in 2016).

Action Items/Plan of Action

As the country’s stark polarization seeps into the workplace, HR is navigating new issues. While it is unrealistic to think that your company can completely prevent these political conversations, you can create a plan of action to reinforce a culture that promotes diversity and inclusivity.

How should an HR professional navigate these workplace discussions to prevent them from becoming toxic? There should be clear policies outlining handling hot-button issues: 

  • Model behavior from the top down (company leaders, C-suite, executives, managers, and supervisors). 
  • Train staff to know the difference between conversation and harassment.
  • Be aware of any dress codes relating to political messaging. 
  • Decide whether political shows are acceptable to view or listen to in the workplace, and consider not allowing political programs to play in common workspaces.
  • Understand and review social media policies.
  • Familiarize yourself with company policies and procedures regarding harassment and bullying.
  • Establish office policies and hold trainings on respecting coworkers.
  • Distinguish what constitutes as an opinion and what rises to the level of harassment.
  • Steer conversations in meetings away from politics or keep discussions more generic and limited to high-level aspects of an issue.
  • Limit or ban visual political displays in the office.
  • Review local, state, and federal laws protecting certain types of speech in the workplace to ensure you remain in compliance (see below for more information on this).

Legal Landscape

When it comes to political expression, HR professionals need to be cognizant of the law, because it may be murkier than employers and employees think. Freedom of speech protections afforded by the First Amendment, which prohibit government from restricting free speech, are not extended to private-sector workplaces. However, public-sector employees are protected from retaliation for expressing certain first amendment rights. Employers can set their own policies regarding speech, and for the most part, employees cannot raise the First Amendment as a defense.

Furthermore, according to The National Law Review, some jurisdictions have laws protecting employees’ political expressions:

Locales that prohibit employers from retaliating against employees for engaging in political activities:

  • California
  • Colorado 
  • Guam 
  • Louisiana 
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska 
  • Nevada
  • South Carolina
  • Utah 
  • West Virginia
  • Cities of Seattle, Washington & Madison, Wisconsin 

Locales that prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on party membership, or for engaging in election-related political activities:

  • Illinois
  • Iowa
  • Louisiana
  • New York 
  • Puerto Rico 
  • Utah 
  • U.S. Virgin Islands
  • Washington D.C. 

Locales that prohibit employees’ rights to express political opinions:

  • New Mexico

Information contained in this publication is intended for educational or informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is this a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney. 

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