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‘Elections can create a lot of friction’: How to deal with politics in your office

By March 22, 2024No Comments

(This column originally appeared in The Inquirer)


It’s an election year and — given the high stakes — it’s more important than ever for business owners to take steps now to ensure that politics don’t create a hostile or uncomfortable environment for workers.

Approximately 61% of workers say they have discussed politics in the office with a colleague in the last 12 months, according to an October survey of more than 1,000 adults from the recruiting site Glassdoor. But most people, around 85%, prefer not to talk about politics on the job, according to another survey of more than 1,000 workers, with 74% fearing that can such conversations can lead to more tensions.

“Elections can create a lot of friction,” said Mark Saddic, a vice president at CCI Consulting, a Blue Bell talent management and HR consulting firm. “Many of today’s employees — particularly younger generations — want to feel that the company they work for shares their vision and values. Leaders not only have to be careful about what can be discussed, but also how they’re presenting their own positions on issues.”

Here are a few things to consider for your workplace.

Many employers have policies concerning political conversations in the office. While employees who work for government or the public sector are mostly entitled to free speech in their conversations and attire, workers in the private sector can be limited by an employer’s policy. Such a policy should define what’s considered “political” and address issues such as permissible activities and any restrictions. Such a policy should be written closely with an HR expert or labor attorney.

This is not a simple exercise, says Debra Friedman, a Philadelphia labor attorney, because there are nuances.

“It’s important that your policy is consistent,” said Friedman. For example, you can’t prohibit someone from putting up a poster or sign supporting one political candidate and then allow one for an opposing candidate.

Saddic agrees.

“It’s a slippery slope to allow discussions or signs supporting one political issue but not another one. Or whether or not it’s appropriate for an employee to wear a pin or shirt supporting one political candidate but not another. It’s difficult because there’s an overlap between what’s considered to be politics and social issues.”

All of this gets complicated by government regulations.

For example, certain sections of the National Labor Relations Act say that employees have the right to discuss wages and other terms or conditions of employment with their workers and engage in certain activities that may include protests of their employer’s workplace policies. Hot political topics like dependent care, minimum wage, mandated sick time, and pay discrimination are part of that arena.

“You may decide to not allow anything being worn that has overtly political language, but you can’t stop people from wearing something that’s pro-union as it may impact your compliance with regulations under the NLRA,” said Friedman. “So before you ban a particular button, for instance, or a shirt, you have to consider whether it also is talking about the terms and conditions of employment or collective bargaining.”

Friedman also says that employers have to be careful in limiting employees who want to engage in these “protected” activities.

“For instance, if an employee says that they’re going to vote for Candidate A because they promised to force employers to raise the minimum wage, that communication involves something that could impact their terms and conditions of employment and how much they’re going to get paid and that’s protected,” she said. “Even if somebody’s making a communication that involves politics, but also might touch on a protected class such as race or sex, age, religion, you have to be careful not to discriminate against somebody based on their protected class.”

The same goes for new rules going into effect by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which can hold employers liable for the behavior of employees toward colleagues that are LGBTQ+ or pregnant or those who openly practice their religion, and these can all have political implications. Employers need to ensure that their policies address this behavior and have established procedures to report incidents before they become bigger problems.

Many of today’s workers want to feel that their employers share their values. The Glassdoor survey found that 64% of workers said they feel supported when their company takes a big stance on political issues they care about. That number rises to 71% for Gen Z and millennial respondents and is even higher for female workers.

But it’s important to remember that the policies regarding political activities — and your decision to make public how you stand on political issues — will not only impact your employees but can also extend to your suppliers, partners, and customers. Displaying support for political candidates or issues can alienate some in your community and potentially cost you business.

“As a business owner, you must be very careful about expressing your political opinions,” said Saddic. “If, for example, you feel strongly about a certain political cause or social movement, and some of your employees disagree with you, then they’re not going to feel included. If you leave it unchecked, then just like in any situation where there’s a lack of leadership, it could create a bigger problem.”

According to both Friedman and Saddic it’s best to have a policy regarding political speech that’s in compliance with labor regulations. But in the end, the less politics in the office the better.

“You want everyone to be as productive as possible,” said Saddic. “But if you’re allowing political conversations and it creates a toxic atmosphere where conflict permeates among your teams, then that’s going to have an impact on everyone’s work output.”

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