Fostering a healthy democracy at work

Michelle Hicks, The Daily Record Newswire

Negative rhetoric is already off the Richter scale in this year’s presidential campaign. As the Nov. 6 election nears, employers want to be prepared in case the negative tone of this year’s campaign carries into the workplace.

Most employers want to celebrate a healthy democracy and encourage employee interest in voting. But when employees bring their political passions to work, it can create distractions if expectations are not clearly spelled out for what is and is not appropriate.

To remind employees of what is acceptable political expression at work, it’s best to first go to company policies. Gently remind employees that there is no First Amendment right to free speech in a private workplace, as in public spaces. Employers can restrict whether or not employees can wear candidate T-shirts or buttons, or even dress their cube in campaign posters.

Workforce Online recommends the following policies to avoid workplace disruptions during the political season:

• Prohibit political statements made to customers or the general public while on company time.

• Enforce dress codes or other limits on employees wearing pro-candidate buttons or other paraphernalia.

• Restrict access to e-mails or bulletin boards from political expression.

• Prohibit political fundraising or informational meetings within the workplace.

The biggest reason for creating such policies is to ensure employees have a safe work environment, free of hostility. Political opinions can easily escalate into combative discussions when employees have opposing views. Discussions should never be allowed to develop into debates over race, national origin or religion. When that happens, an innocent conversation can be perceived as harassment.

If such a complaint is made, it is important to remember that it can’t be dismissed as an overreaction from a sensitive employee. The company has a legal responsibility to investigate the complaint and eliminate any conduct that constitutes unlawful harassment.

However, when the discussion is simply one of positive advocacy, such discussions can provide a healthy and engaging debate between two co-workers. An organization may decide to allow such conversations as a normal part of living and participating in a democracy.

If that is your approach, then you need to be proactive in your expectations and encourage employees to be respectful of each other and their opinions. Employers simply need to be watchful of such discussions to ensure they don’t go too far. They also need to ensure the discussions don’t distract from productivity. If a discussion goes longer than five minutes, then it’s probably appropriate for a supervisor to cut off the conversation and ask employees to return their focus to work.

Although employers can control what kind of political expression is allowed at work, when an employee is off work hours those restrictions likely do not apply. In fact, in some states, laws specifically prohibit discrimination or discipline for lawful activities outside of work, including political activities.

With the economic climate still not stable, there is a heightened interest in not only the election, but also in highly politicized rhetoric. It is wise for employers to set clear expectations for what is and is not allowed in the workplace in order to keep the conversations healthy democratic expressions.

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Michelle Hicks, a senior professional in human resources, is a director in the communication practice of Buck Consultants, a Xerox company.