From the UK to Brazil, politics dominate the media, our lives, and even our workplaces. While political discussions can be stimulating and provocative, they can go bad quickly and veer into uncomfortable territory.
The line between freedom of speech and a hostile work environment is not always black and white (or red or blue), it can be downright invisible.
Witnessing an intense political discussion in the breakroom, as an HR leader I struggled with whether or not to redirect the discussion as I could not see a clear line between freedom of speech and a hostile work environment. So, I hoped for the best.
After all, The National Labor Relations Act clearly prohibits employers from banning employees from discussing the terms of their employment; and much of this spirited discussion was directly related to income, taxes, except maybe the part about totalitarianism. Was I courting a hostile work environment complaint? Perhaps.
While government and certain municipal employees enjoy some protections under their constitutional rights to free speech under the First Amendment, freedom of speech is not protected in most US private companies unless your employees work in one of the few states where political affiliation is considered a protected class.
While a political diversity discussion among employees can be healthy and informative, when does it become a liability and how can it be managed and measured against one’s constitutional rights to freedom of speech?
Regardless of whether your employee’s favorite political hero is red, white, black, or orange, here are some tips for maintaining a cohesive, safe, and productive work environment for all as we enter into yet another politically charged time period:
Promote a culture of respect from the top down
Whether an employee occupies a C-suite position or the reception desk, beliefs and values are visceral and we are all entitled to them.
Encourage respectful exchanges of beliefs without fear or intimidation. An environment where employees are allowed to share without fear of reprisal encourages crucial conversation, which is key to building an inclusive culture.
Proceed with caution
Know your culture and know when political discussions can be risky. An employee who is disciplined for performance or behavior may attach the action to an unrelated comment or opinion that has been previously shared in the heat of a political debate,
While sharing openly can be the first step to engagement, remember that what you share may not be as important as how you share it.
Know when enough is enough
If you are in an environment that encourages respectful debate, remind employees to be cognizant of social cues and know when their colleagues are uncomfortable.
As a leader, do not hesitate to redirect any discussion that becomes aggressive, disrespectful, or threatening in any way.
Review your policies for consistency
Around election time, reiterate your policies around the use of electronic communications, harassment, cultural sensitivity, and even dress code.
While a t-shirt or accessories that say “Make America Great Again” or “Swing Left” may be fashion to some, it may send another message to your customers and co-workers who may prefer fashion that can be seen and not read.
Remember your role as an employer
You have a responsibility to provide a safe, comfortable work environment. The First Amendment does not exempt you from creating guidelines and boundaries for employees with respect to political discussions. Also, you are obligated to mitigate disruptions that impede your organization’s progress and that can include such discussions.
A political discussion in the workplace does not have to be politically incorrect when supported by a base of respect, inclusiveness, and sensitivity, all of which are characterizations of a progressive organization.
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