Politics in the workplace: Keeping the conversation fair, balanced and legal

As the US primaries continue to create politically charged discussion and conflict, knowing what you can and can’t do to maintain a safe and harmonious workplace is a must. Striking the right balance between open dialogue and respectful boundaries is hard, particularly in this day and age of the 24-hour news cycle. Knowing the rules, and establishing some best practices is a must.

What you can (and can’t) do to maintain the peace (and avoid legal risk) during election season:

You can’t ban political discussion entirely: According to Workplacefairness.org, some states offer employees protection against retaliation or discrimination due to political viewpoints, including California and New York. Banning political discussion in these states is a violation of your employee’s right to free speech – just as it is a violation to ban such speech if you are a government employer.

Even in private employer workplaces, this issue is thorny. While there is generally no right of “free speech” in the private employer context, it can get murky. A lot of today’s political speech crosses over into what can be considered “protected class” turf. Statements about ISIS or anti-Muslim rhetoric, discussions about LGBT rights and gay marriage, “building a wall” to stop Mexican immigration …. all of these subjects (and more) can be Title VII minefields.

You can prevent unlawful harassment or harassment that violates your policies: Your policies may require respect between coworkers. They certainly prohibit unlawful harassment. You can prevent workers from harassing others for their political beliefs where the statements or behaviors fall within your policies. Coworkers who loudly discuss the benefits of the wall between the United States and Mexico, for example, may be creating a hostile work environment for employees of Mexican heritage.

You also need to be mindful of real or perceived discrimination by managers against employees with unpopular political views. If your managers go to lunch with subordinates who share their views, but not others, if they give the best hours or sales leads to employees who are “in their camp,” or if they attend political fundraisers with staff – this all could all be perceived as real or actual favoritism towards employees on the basis of their views. If the favored employees all happen to be Caucasian males, for example, and the disfavored employees are female or minorities, then this could become a claim of discrimination.

You can and should prevent workers from behaving in a hostile or aggressive manner: No one should be allowed to create a threatening or hostile environment for others because of passionate political views. If the polarized tone of this year’s political season is creating conflict that is verging on threats, this should prompt a review of your policy on workplace violence. If you do have dueling employees or workers who feud over politics, an in-person meeting to discuss your expectations can help resolve a growing source of conflict and prevent outbursts in the workplace.

You can train your staff for safety: With real life situations like the shooting in San Bernadino and at Planned Parenthood, it is an unfortunate reality that political disagreements can explode in terrible ways. It is prudent to take action to protect your staff with awareness measures and safety precautions. If you have not covered workplace safety or updated your security protocols, take the time to do so now. Maintaining a civil workplace not only makes your business a better place to work, it keeps conflict low and reduces your chances of becoming a deadly statistic or the next big news story.

By thinking through the pitfalls and reality of political discussion in advance and determining what actions you will and won’t allow, you can make your business safe for all of your employees. This not only creates a respectful place to exchange views, it can limit your risk of Title VII related claims arising out of debate in this volatile political season.

Lastly, be sure your leaders are setting the tone. Respect should start at the top of the company and leaders need to make sure those with differing political views are being treated fairly and respectfully.