Can I Stop Tension-Filled Political Discussions in the Workplace?

At a management meeting, one of your leaders shares that she heard several of her employees having a political discussion about a candidate’s support for the Pro Act (H.R.2474 – Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2019). She shared that the discussion turned into a conversation about the company’s contract workers gaining the right to bargain collectively. The ProAct stops employers from “misclassifying” employees as supervisors or independent contractors, meaning they would be eligible to collectively bargain.

You Can’t Ban Political Discussions

The Pro Act has many other stipulations that directly impact employers, including strengthening and adding monetary penalties for violation of worker rights or knowing and failing to prevent such violations. The discussion at the management meeting is disturbing. Of course, your natural reaction is to overreact and order employees to stop discussing such topics at work because they are divisive and promote unionizing. That would be a very bad move because the discussion is protected under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

The conversation is protected because the employees discussed the Pro Act within the context of their pay, worker classification, and terms and conditions of employment. You have the right to establish policies to limit political expression during normal work hours and on work premises, but there are many twists and turns as usual. Your goals are to protect your rights as an employer, protect your employees’ rights under the NLRA, and maintain a positive organizational culture that is not harmed by political disagreements. How you respond to the information delivered in the meeting will directly impact employee engagement.

There are many factors at play. They include union advocacy by one political group, new generations of younger activist workers, growing use of gig or independent workers, and ready access to social media as a widespread communication tool. The increasing remote workforce and strong personal interest in some events, like Supreme Court hearings, are also factors because the division between personal and work lives is blurred. There is also the desire of generations, like millennials and Gen Z, to work in places where they feel a sense of belonging and are working with like-minded people who share their concerns about things like human rights and social justice.

It is a storm of events coming together to create a volcanic force during an election year. As an employer, it’s worrisome that political discussions could easily erupt into angry arguments that cause problems between co-workers with different opinions and between workers and their managers and supervisors. Political arguments are harmful to employee engagement and contribute to a toxic culture. Your employees stop feeling like they belong in the work group. They experience more job stress, develop negative views of co-workers, and have more difficulty concentrating on work. These discussions can even lead to higher sick leave rates as people try to avoid the toxic workplace.

Impact on Productivity of Workers In-House and Working Remotely

Productivity is bound to suffer. Wakefield Research partnered with BetterWorks to survey 500 full-time U.S. employees about politics in the workplace. It found that 87 percent of employees at work read political social media posts, and 80 percent have discussed politics with colleagues and professional contacts. The very bad news is that almost half of those surveyed said they had witnessed a political conversation at work turn into an argument. Challenger, Gray & Christmas calculated the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination process alone was so distracting for employees that it cost U.S. employees approximately $1.76 billion in lost productivity.

You can write a policy within the confines of the NLRA, but first, consider all the factors, not just lost productivity, impacting your workforce to ensure the policy addresses them. For example, technology has made it easy for people to share their views, no matter where they work – in-house or remotely. Since most companies have a remote workforce now, it’s more challenging to ensure the employees don’t let politics lead to digital arguments, hurt customer and supplier relationships, and damage its reputation. What remote workers do and say matters just as much as what in-house workers do and say.

Union Proof interviewed Abigail Johnson Hess, Careers Reporter with “CNBC Make It” and experienced independent researcher on emerging social media platforms and social media campaigns for political and corporate consulting firms. She says that remote workers are impacted as well as in-house employers. “Some people may find it more difficult to communicate when working remotely. You have to be careful about how your tone comes across in written communications and when meeting virtually. Remote workers are more likely to be spending more time with people who share similar opinions, and their lack of proximity to others with differing political opinions can lead to more heated disagreements.”


Outside-In and Inside-Out

One of the first things you can do is to acknowledge to your employees that you recognize politics evoke emotions, but that it’s important to maintain good relationships with co-workers, customers, vendors, and the public in order to support a positive culture and brand. Acknowledging people have emotions and perspectives show respect for individuals.

Maintaining current social media policies that address the need to protect the company’s reputation without violating the in-house and remote employee’s right to discuss compensation, benefits, terms of employment, and working conditions is important. You simply cannot interfere in NLRA protected concerted activity, which gives employees the right to complain about anything to do with work, but they aren’t allowed to engage in hate speech, make negative comments about protected categories of people and disparage customers or clients. Things can get murky, though.

Labor & Employment attorney, Carlos Pastrana, gets to the heart of the employer’s challenge by using support and non-support for “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) as an example. Millions of employees support BLM, but millions don’t. Some companies posted their support for BLM on their website, but many also chose to support a more generic campaign for racial equality and social justice. Should you discourage employee social media posts about BLM? There is no definitive answer. If a workforce is diverse, employer support for BLM could conceivably generate goodwill with employees and customers.

Be Proactive When Approaching Political Social Media Posts

Pastrana says employer support for groups like BLM “depends on the context, including the type of business, the ethnic and racial makeup of the workforce, the content of the post, and the identity of the person who posted it.” The murky issue gets even murkier when you consider a racially diverse workforce that means employees posting about racial equity could conceivably say their posts are work-related and legally protected.

Attorney Doug Kauffman of Balch & Bingham, LLP, recommends spending more time preventing problematic social media posts than waiting for one to appear. The suggestions include:

  • Identify the personal social media posts that will be addressed, i.e., violates the code of conduct, policy on anti-discrimination, policy on the use of electronic communications, etc.
  • Identify how violations will be addressed
  • Enforce the company’s positive culture and organizational values
  • Explain the impact of negative social media posts on the company’s reputation
  • Reinforce the company’s commitment to diversity and inclusion
  • Show support for the right of employees to express their opinions

Always Connected

Employees can use their mobile technology to check news reports, post on social media, and comment on political-themed articles and blogs. It’s not surprising they have political discussions in the workplace when they are never disconnected from the drama taking place in the political arena. When the drama moves into the workplace, it is distracting, non-productive, and harmful to employee engagement on many levels. The damage to the culture and engagement will last long after the election is over too. That is why it’s so important to have a clear policy now on political discussions.

Despite the importance of having a policy in place, more murkiness emerges. A Clutch survey of 500 employees found that employees are warier about expressing political opinions on social media than they are about sharing them face-to-face. Though almost 30 percent surveyed want a formal company policy on a political discussion on social media to preserve the company culture, 45 percent of employees under the age of 35 oppose such a policy. The younger employees view such a policy as violating their right to free speech on personal accounts.

Developing a Policy and Preserving the Culture

The first point to keep in mind is that, as an employer, you can restrict employees’ behavior during work hours, and you can prohibit certain behaviors that could harm the organization in a variety of ways. Developing a political expression policy is the first step. It can:

  • Start with a positive statement that management supports employees taking an interest in politics and social justice but wants to ensure the organization’s reputation and culture is not harmed through inappropriate behaviors (then move into the details of the policy)
  • Prohibit political activities on the organization’s premises
  • Inform employees they cannot participate in political activities that reflect unfavorably on the company
  • Prohibit the use of the company name or brand in political activities without management approval
  • Require employees to let management know they plan on running for office or accept a public appointment, so management can make sure there isn’t a conflict of interest with the job and the company
  • Define workplace harassment within the context of political speech, i.e., speech singles people out based on their protected status of race, nationality, gender, etc. This was addressed in a legal analysis conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles)
  • Prohibit harassment of customers, vendors, partners, and coworkers for their political views
  • Explain how the social media policy integrates with the political expression and harassment policies, i.e., cannot post support for a discriminating hate group on social media
  • Make it clear that employees can be disciplined for violating the company policy on political speech and harassment
  • Establish a policy on the use of company email accounts and social media for political messages, i.e., cannot be used to post opinions on politics
  • Prohibit wearing political gear or accessories, hanging posters, or distributing political material; the one difficulty is that employees can wear something that promotes a political cause or candidate if it is connected to protected concerted activity, i.e., support candidate X because he will increase the minimum wage
  • Prohibit the use of company equipment to support a political candidate, i.e., phones, fax machines, computers, telephones, bulletin boards, etc.
  • Design a leave policy for employees who want time off to participate in political activities; i.e., must use vacation time or non-paid leave
  • Establish the right to discipline employees who violate the political expression policy

You should always have every employee policy reviewed by a labor professional. Adhering to the NLRA and local laws can be tricky. Another point to keep in mind is that violating the NLRA and disengaging employees through your policy and responses to their political behaviors could very well encourage your workers to join a union. Everything is connected. For example, consistency in policies and enforcement policies is critical to avoiding charges of unfair labor practices (ULPs). If you ban the use of email, phones, and other equipment and technologies for political activities, then you must have a ban for all non-work related activities. You can’t let employees hang notices about a club meeting or a charity but prohibit hanging political flyers.

Additional Steps

Developing a political expression policy is one step in the right direction. You can do additional things to keep your workplace civil and in compliance with the NLRA and preserve your positive organizational culture. The potential damage that political discussions can cause is enormous. These discussions can lead to charges of employee harassment, discrimination, lowered employee engagement, lack of trust in management a union organizing campaign. The following are some additional guidelines for preserving your hard work in developing good employee relations, a culture of belonging, and a productive workforce.

  • Provide Harassment prevention training to employees and leaders: The Respectful Workplace 
  • Be sure the policy is applied consistently and fairly
  • Be sure all the policies are consistent with each other
  • Keep your leaders fully engaged by keeping them aware of discussions that are taking place and the appropriate responses
  • Be ready to step in immediately to correct disrespectful discussions (leadership training in effective communication plays a big role)
  • Set a good example by remaining silent on political issues, and don’t joke or make offhand political comments (what you think is humor could be interpreted as insulting or harassing to someone else)
  • Remind everyone of the policy by communicating frequently and consistently, particularly when there are upcoming elections – video is a great way to make this message memorable!
  • Maintain a direct connection with employees through department meetings, frequent reminders that the workplace is for working and not politics, online video messages reassuring employees the employer supports their passionate interest in politics within the policies at work, etc.

Stay Connected with Employees

Make sure employees can bring their whole selves to work, which doesn’t mean they can be disrespectful of others’ “whole selves.” Banning all political discussions will drive a wedge between employees and between employees and their leaders! Humans experience emotions they don’t shed just because they walk through the door or sit down at their home office desk to work remotely. They aren’t suddenly politics-free when attending a meeting in-person or on Zoom. It’s all very distracting and harmful to productivity. “Host intentional, guided conversations to allow workers to express themselves,” advises Abigail Hess. “Provide training on how workers can have healthy and respectful political conversations.”

Make sure employees can bring their whole selves to work, which doesn’t mean they can be disrespectful of others’ “whole selves.” Banning all political discussions will drive a wedge between employees and between employees and their leaders! Humans experience emotions they don’t shed just because they walk through the door or sit down at their home office desk to work remotely. They aren’t suddenly politics-free when attending a meeting in-person or on Zoom. It’s all very distracting and harmful to productivity. “Host intentional, guided conversations to allow workers to express themselves,” advises Abigail Hess. “Provide training on how workers can have healthy and respectful political conversations.”

Throughout this discussion, the emphasis is on staying within the NLRA rules, maintaining employee engagement, and bolstering a positive culture. It’s difficult to keep a culture-positive if employees are upset, offended, and distracted. Instead of ignoring the problems, acknowledging people have differences, and reinforcing the importance of working together in a civil manner towards meeting organizational goals. Keeping the workforce on common ground is an excellent strategy for keeping people-focused. You want your in-house and remote employees engaged in productive activities rather than spending their time posting inflammatory remarks on social media or picking arguments with people who have a different opinion or perspective than theirs.

Delicate Times

These are delicate times, doubly so for companies striving to remain union-free. The pro-union public speeches, pro-union political party support, and unrest in a society will make it more challenging to stay union-free in the coming months. How you handle political discussions now will go a long way towards maintaining employee engagement now and in the future. The reality is that political and social justice issues will not suddenly get resolved after the election. Maintain a culture of respect, utilize this time as a way to reinforce the value of respecting differences, and let people be humans.

UnionProof and A Better Leader are founded on the principles that employee engagement and a positive workplace culture benefits everyone, from the CEO to the frontline worker. We offer numerous tools and products that can help your efforts stay connected to your workforce in a supportive, productive manner and stay union free.

About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is IRI's Director of Digital Solutions and founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.