How to temper political discourse in your workplace

Although consumers increasingly seek issues-based stands from the businesses they patronize, your internal culture might benefit from curtailing—or eliminating—talk of politics on the job.

Workplace politics

Our society is increasingly polarized politically.

This is not new in U.S. history. In 1856, Sen. Charles Sumner gave a two-day oration in which he called a pro-slavery senator an “imbecile.” Two days after that, a congressman (a cousin of the South Carolina senator) came up behind Sumner while he was at his desk and beat him over the head with a cane. Although he continued to hold his office afterward, Sumner was physically out of commission for several years.

Most modern disagreements don’t reach that level of hostility, but that doesn’t mean things are good. Today’s employers should create boundaries for employees wishing to talk politics at work.

Unless they work for a public employer, employees do not have a First Amendment right to discuss whatever they want in the workplace. So, as the 2020 election draws nigh, here are some tips for keeping political discussions in the workplace under control:

1. Stress ‘face-time’ only interactions. When an employee airs personal opinions to strangers online, it is impossible to tell how anyone is reacting until it’s too late. No facial expressions, no social cues, no opportunities to smile and let them know you’re being tongue-in-cheek, no way to argue vigorously and then laugh, smile, and shake hands or hug when you’re through. For these reasons, employers should strongly encourage employees to have their political discussions only with “real,” not “virtual,” colleagues.

2. Counsel employees to be considerate of co-workers’ leanings. In most workplaces, employees’ political beliefs will run the gamut, both in substance and in degree of passion. An employee who thinks the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump is a travesty does not need to be initiating debates with a co-worker who can’t wait to see him get shown to the door. Such debate is unlikely to result in anything but hard feelings on both sides.

3. Counsel employees to talk politics, if they must, with kindred spirits.The workplace is not where “free and robust debate” should be taking place. Employees will have plenty of time to do that with relatives and non-work friends when they’re off the clock and off the premises. (When employees do talk at work with like-minded co-workers, the conversations should be discreet.)

4. Remind employees that their political adversaries are people, too. It’s tempting to think that anyone who disagrees with one is the scum of the earth, but political adversaries are kind to their parents and kids, are good neighbors, volunteer, give to charity, and adopt rescue animals. Even if they are not quite that good, they may be really good at their jobs, which is a nice thing to have in a co-worker—regardless of politics. Employees may need to remind themselves of this from time to time.

5. Encourage employees to use a few choice phrases. Phrases like, “You make a good point,” or, “I hadn’t thought about that,” or, “I don’t agree, but I can understand where you’re coming from,” or, “I agree with everything you’ve said, with this one exception…” Or even, “I couldn’t disagree with you more, but I respect and like you too much to let this get in our way.”

6. Consider banning apparel with messages. This usually is not an issue in an office environment, but include in your dress code that clothing with “messages” will result in the employee being sent home to change. It is best if the policy bans any clothing with any message, whether the message is political or not. (Employers who make exceptions may have to allow employees to wear clothing with union insignia or messages, too.)

7. Don’t ‘spike the football’ after a political win. When employees go to work the day after an election, they should assume that half their co-workers will be unhappy. The winners should be tactful and considerate.

8. Employers, be non-partisan. Employers should not impose what First Amendment lawyers call “content-based restrictions.” If an employee violates a no-politics policy, enforce it even-handedly, without regard to the political position taken by the employee. Exceptions may be made for employees who advocate violence, or who express themselves in an abusive, threatening or harassing manner.

9. Employers, don’t pressure employees to support your favored candidates or issues. Unless the issue is essential to the survival of your company or fundamental to your business, give your employees the freedom to make their own political decisions without interference.

Robin Shea is a partner at Constangy Brooks, Smith & Prophete in the firm’s Winston-Salem office.

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