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How to Manage Political Discussions at Work

Have you ever been caught off guard by a political conversation in the wrong place at the wrong time? It’s common to experience this at family reunions or grocery checkout lines. Still, when politics bleed into our work environment, it can be a recipe for disaster. Most business owners promote team bonding. However, there are some types of conversations you want to steer clear of in the workplace.

Political discussions fall into this category, and with U.S. elections around the corner, now is the time to establish boundaries. According to SHRM, 26% of Americans admit to talking politics in the workplace for at least 15 minutes per workweek, meaning a quarter of your workforce may be engaging in divisive conversations. 

Talking politics at work opens up the potential for heated debates and division among team members. These rifts can impact the ability to deliver on assignments and undermine the potential for a thriving work environment.

If you’re unsure how to keep politics in check in your office, here’s everything you need to know!

Understanding Your Legal Responsibilities Regarding Political Discussions

First, make sure to understand the laws and regulations that govern political discussions in your area. Many employers are under the false impression that the First Amendment (the right to free speech) means they can’t regulate workplace conversations, but that doesn’t apply to private companies. The right to free speech is federally protected against government retribution—not against private employers. In other words, employers maintain the federal right to limit certain types of speech in the workplace. 

Still, some cities, counties, and states protect employees’ right to political expression in the workplace, and many also prohibit discrimination based on political beliefs. In these locations, you’ll want to clearly understand the limitations before you set or enforce a policy around political discussions.

While there’s a gray area where discussions around politics and employment conditions overlap, in general, be careful not to intervene when workers are discussing salary and wages, promotions, paid leave, or union activity. You can’t regulate workplace discussions: employees discussing terms and conditions of employment. When in doubt, consult your legal counsel to clarify the specific regulations that apply to your local area. It’s always best to act cautiously when workplace rights are on the line.

Tips for Managing Political Discussions in the Workplace

After considering your legal responsibility to employees, it’s time to decide how to manage political discussions among your team members. Here are four steps to make sure you handle these sensitive issues carefully. 

1. Create Non-discriminatory Policies That Apply to All Employee Groups

The first step toward managing political discussions is to decide what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. Start by outlining clear workplace policies, including details about how employees should respond if employees don’t follow the guidelines. A straightforward, safe process to report harassment or discrimination is key to enforcing workplace boundaries. As you create these policies and procedures, ensure they apply to all employees across the board.

2. Identify and Avoid Hot-button Issues

Hot-button issues pose a significant hazard to workplace communication. Why? These heated topics almost always lead to emotional, inflammatory dialogue and rarely lead to common ground or new understanding. You know your team best, so consider what would trigger co-workers the most when determining what should be off-limits in the workplace. 

3. Add Policies Around Political Clothing and Campaign Materials to Your Handbook

During election season, employees are more likely to wear politically-influenced clothing or carry campaign materials to work. While a politically-branded coffee mug or T-shirt may not seem to impact day-to-day tasks, it can lead to political discussions. Employers have the right to restrict these expressions, so consider including limitations in your employee handbook.

4. Periodically Remind Everyone of the Policies in Place

Policies are only as effective as you make them. While it might seem simple to write up your new policies and processes and distribute them once, the reality is you’ll need regular reminders built into your approach. Employees can’t follow rules they don’t know exist, and new hires who miss the transition period may not be up to speed. Check-in with existing employees periodically and include political speech policies in onboarding materials for new hires.

A clear, thorough employee handbook is your best safeguard against workplace conflict—politically-driven or otherwise. Contact our team to learn more about practical employee handbooks, HR compliance, and training to prevent workplace discrimination. We’re here to help!

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