Posted by: Professionals In Human Resources Association (PIHRA) | September 2, 2010

Good Careers Gone Wrong: Why Discussing Politics in the Workplace is Just, Well, Bad Politics

By: Lonnie Giamela, Fisher & Phillips LLP

The start of the 2010 election cycle has brought a new fervor to regional and national politics. The gubernatorial and Senate races at the state level are hotly contested while the national political landscape is changing on a daily basis. Social and political issues such as the Arizona immigration law, the economy, states’ budget crises and health care have caused political passions to flare.

Discussions on these issues are becoming more frequent, volatile, and tensions resulting from these discussions are increasingly adversely affecting the workplace environment. Addressing the current political climate, it’s vital for employers to be aware of the divide between expression and harassment in the workplace.

The increased frustration in our state and national elected officials and emotion behind many of the issues up for vote makes this election particularly sensitive in the workplace. This creates a highly-charged environment, in which discussions that may be mistaken for free speech under the First Amendment can actually open up a Pandora’s box of legal concerns.It’s important to consider the potential legal repercussions of political discussion at work, and guidelines for employers. Below are some “do’s and don’ts”:

  1. DO Evaluate Motives
    Political discussions at in a place of work can expose sharp differences about irrelevant issues, which can create obstacles that make functioning together difficult. It may be wise for all involved to ask, “Why risk it?”
  2. DO Remain Neutral and Comply with State Laws regarding Voting Time
    Employers should facilitate and encourage employees to vote, but never for a particular candidate. They must also ensure adequate time off for voting.
  3. DO Ensure Policies are Objectively Developed and Enforced
    Regardless of individual political views, policies regarding politics in the work place must be administered equally and without bias. While it’s okay to allow some forms of traditional political expression; formal meetings to discuss politics and heated discussions bordering on harassment are different stories.
  4. DO Monitor Political Discussion
    What employers aren’t aware of can hurt them. It’s the responsibility of the employer to be well-informed about what types of political conversations or arguments occur at work and work-related functions.
  5. DON’T Push Political Agendas
    Employers and managers can find themselves in a heap of legal trouble if they spread propaganda. Even heated political arguments can cause tensions to erupt leading to undesirable hostility in the workplace.
  6. DON’T Criticize, Joke or Jab
    Employers should beware of inappropriate comments about political affiliations. Even subtle jokes or jabs can make some employees feel like targets. Comments like, “You’re only supporting her because she’s a woman,” can turn into a world of trouble for employers.
  7. DON’T Solicit Funds
    Employees should never feel coerced into supporting or contributing to a candidate as a condition of employment. Even if employees are doing the soliciting, dependent upon the circumstances, such requests can be illegal.
  8. DON’T Gloat
    When all is said and done and the votes are counted, resist the urge to brag about a win―it will only cause discomfort.

About the Author: Lonnie Giamela is an employment law attorney with the Irvine, Calif. office of national employment law firm Fisher & Phillips LLP who regularly advises employers on how to handle politics in the office, and who has also worked on several presidential and congressional campaigns. Fisher & Phillips has developed a longstanding and nationally recognized expertise in labor and employment law in order to protect the rights of employers. Fisher & Phillips offers a wide range of services to private and public sector clients, both unionized and non-unionized. With a focus on both preventive counseling and defense of claims, the firm addresses the business and legal objectives of employers in a way that optimizes their clients’ performance in today’s changing marketplace. To learn more about Fisher & Phillips, visit www.laborlawyers.com.

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