Business & Politics How employers can curb political venom in the workplace

By Gary Band

The Daily Record Newswire

LONG ISLAND - Political and racial tensions can polarize the workplace. But experts say employers can take steps, especially in an election year, to maintain peace and productivity in the office.

"Whether you support Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, as soon as you articulate which candidate you support, it immediately generates a response," said Craig Olivo, co-managing partner at Bond, Schoeneck & King in Garden City, who reported an uptick in calls on political tensions in the workplace.

In general, he said, "People are more guarded about how much they express. But some are unabashed and express views no matter what."

And that can add a level of "potential liability" for employers, he said.

These heated discussions whether face-to-face or on social media cover the gamut from politics to discourse over Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, Police Lives Matter and more. And once they filter into the office, the dialog can trigger conflicts at work even leading to U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission workplace discrimination or harassment charges.

Employers should be "careful about liability discussions between employees that often bring up certain protected matters: race, religion, and gender," warned Brian Shenker, a labor and employment consultant with Portnoy, Messinger, Pearl & Associates, a labor relations firm in Syosset. "A lot of times political turns of events bring ‚?¶ discrimination claims if you let employees discuss and have it unchecked."

"Once issues are raised, causing friction, you can't ignore it," said Kimberly Malerba, who chairs Ruskin Moscou Faltischek's employment law practice group in Uniondale. "There are a lot of issues creating diverging viewpoints in the world. People feel strongly‚?¶ [but] everyone is entitled to their opinion."

With all eyes on Long Island during the presidential debate, to be hosted at Hofstra University on Sept. 26, employers can turn election season into an opportunity.

"It's the perfect time for employers to redistribute policies, have training, look at policies with a fresh eye and make them up-to-date with any changes in the law since last looked at," Olivo said.

That includes establishing "thorough anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies in place with clear complaint procedures that all employees receive and acknowledge receipt," Malerba said.

And though that might seem obvious, not every organization has taken heed. While 72 percent of HR professionals say their organizations discourage political activities in the workplace, only 24 percent say they had a written or formal policy in place, according to a survey released in June by the Society for Human Resource Management. That same survey revealed that eight percent had policies, but they were informal.

One recommendation is to institute non-solicitation policies, whether political or social, which prevent campaigning during the workday, said Barbara DeMatteo, director of HR consulting at Portnoy, Messinger, Pearl. Those who want to discuss such matters can save it for the work break, she added.

"The company isn't taking either side it's not up for discussion during the work day," Shenker said, adding that the organization "shouldn't prohibit one viewpoint, but any viewpoint."

Even when coworkers don't agree, they still need to respect one another, Malerba noted, pointing to the importance of establishing clear polices that help prevent problems at work.

Experts say it helps to take cues from leadership.

Culture of respect

"From the top down companies should promote a culture of respect," DeMatteo said. "There will be discussion. But you don't want employees getting into arguments that only takes away from teamwork."

With the election a little less than four months away, DeMatteo said her firm is preparing to meet with clients about reviewing or developing policies.

Olivo noted that managers and supervisors should not use their position to "coerce a colleague to support or not support a candidate." And in the public sector, a civil service law makes it illegal to solicit contributions from an individual "it can lead to serious repercussions," he said.

In addition, "most employers don't want employees using assets phones, emails, computers to support an endeavor," which would include "printing hundreds of flyers" that might support a cause or a candidate, he said.

Even work attire and promotional material can generate animosity. DeMatteo is now speaking with organizations about developing a policy against wearing clothing with writing so that workers don't show up with caps bearing campaign slogans or display campaign materials in their cubicles. Once the policy is established and shared with workers, it can be referred to as needed so that an employee doesn't feel singled out.

Empathy and common sense go a long way.

Employers can stress in their policy that a racist comment you wouldn't say to someone in person should not be communicated online, Malerba said.

"If they're Facebook friends with coworkers and are quoted saying [something racist] online, it's like saying it within earshot of the coworker," she pointed out.

Be proactive

But rather than searching out employees' political positions on social media, Shenker recommends promoting a tolerant and respectful workplace. Employers want to be sure to avoid even the appearance of retaliating against a worker who doesn't share their political leanings or other protected categories.

"Keep a file on objective measures, evidence to avoid any doubt that there is illegitimate action," he said.

Managers and supervisors who hear a discussion devolve can steer the conversation toward the positive, DeMatteo said. Knowing when to jut in with statements like "Let's agree to disagree," "This conversation is getting too heated for the workplace" and "Let's move to a different topic" can help keep peace in the workplace, she added.

But take complaints seriously, experts say.

"Engage in training for supervisors and managers to be sensitive to complaints made by someone being harassed," Malerba said. "They should know how to address complaints. It may help in defense of the company if a person were to file a harassment complaint."

Even if tensions continue to rise, with the right policies in place, temperaments in the workplace should stay cool.

"It's no different than what employers should be doing all along even before political and racial" matters began appearing in news headlines, Oliva said. "This is the opportunity to go back and take proactive steps now."

Published: Mon, Aug 08, 2016