The Morning Call “Lehigh Valley Workplaces” column: The dangers of discussing politics on the job
It is startling how passionate and outspoken many of us have become about politics. With the November midterm election just weeks away, feelings and discussions are heated. Sometimes the political divide is so clear you can practically see the line, though we all see it in different colors. When it comes to talking politics — whether on social media or in person — it can be hard to turn down the dial.
So how do we handle political discussions if and when they happen in the workplace?
For many people, it is not easy to hold back feelings and commentary on politics if you have concerns about the impact political decisions and elections will have on our country. Even in the Lehigh Valley, we have had our own political dramas that have caused a small level of divide.
Many questions arise when political dialog happens in the workplace. When does political discussion go too far? Should employers attempt to squash dialog regarding politics? Is any discussion out of bounds? Should employees (and employers) keep their beliefs to themselves — and is this expectation even possible?
I went to the person I go to most often when it comes to understanding human resources and workplace legalities and conflicts: George Hlavac, attorney and chairman of the Pennsylvania Labor and Employment Group of Norris McLaughlin in Allentown.
Hlavac started with an overview of freedom of speech rights in the workplace: In the private sector, free speech rights apparently do not exist; government employees have some rights, but they are limited.
What does this mean? It means that when you are at work, you are supposed to be working and any conversations outside of work requirements are not protected. As an employee, if you get into a political discussion that gets out of hand, your employer can take action against you for disrupting the workplace. As an employer, you have the right to squash any political talk if you see fit.
But should you?
Can your employees have a political conversation without the debate getting heated? Some can, but I would guess most cannot. So does political conversation belong in the workplace? Hlavac said it is up to the company.
My first piece of advice would be evaluating whether these conversations are taking place instead of work. After all, employees are not being paid to have political discussions. If the talk does not interfere with work and it is not disruptive, there likely is no harm. But more often than not, the potential for discord and disruption is high.
Hlavac further explained that the employer should not tolerate arguments of any kind. As a result, politics should be off-limits at most organizations.
“Employers should strive for a workplace where everyone is comfortable working in it. You don’t want to be in a confrontational environment because of your beliefs,” he said.
What about an employer who holds strong political opinions?
“It’s not a good idea for an employer to take positions because they can alienate a good part of the workforce,” Hlavac said.
If the company is privately held, the owner has rights that employees do not. If employees don’t like it, they should consider employment elsewhere. That may sound harsh, but there is not a whole lot an employee can do as no law exists to protect the employee.
While a manager harassing someone based on his or her political views may not be illegal, it can be viewed as hostile and needs to be addressed. A hostile work environment can cause morale problems that lead to turnover. However, a political conversation that crosses the line into protected classifications such as race, religion or gender can be illegal. It’s safe to say that being partisan, outspoken and confrontational as an employer is not a wise choice.
Ultimately, employers can decide what guidelines are right for their respective workplaces. Should an organization be able to handle healthy, nondisruptive debate, then the employer should watch to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand. As for employees, I offer similar advice. If you know you cannot handle political discussion without your emotions stepping in, it’s best to keep those conversations out of the workplace.
If you do care deeply about this subject, send me a line with your thoughts. And regardless of your political inclinations, do not forget to vote in November. (Just think twice about mentioning who you voted for at your place of work!)
This article first appeared in the Lehigh Valley Business Cycle section of The Morning Call on October 3, 2018. The original article can be found here.