Keep ‘office politics’ in check and promote civility as election nears
September 5, 2012
Article courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner AdvanceHR
With the presidential and Congressional elections looming, political discussions around the workplace can get heated. It’s not uncommon for individuals to claim that their free speech rights entitle them to let loose whenever and wherever they feel like it. Left unchecked, the consequences can include bruised feelings, a drop in productivity and perhaps even lost business. There’s no telling how many customers may walk out of a business when confronted by zealous employees, or even after overhearing employees argue among themselves about sensitive issues. Read on to learn how to nip this red vs. blue issue in the bud.
“It is not uncommon for employers to have a concern about this,” says Craig A. Cowart, a Memphis labor lawyer. There’s a lot at stake — employee morale, customer relations and even, in extreme cases, the threat of violence. But employers sometimes are reluctant to try to get proactive in addressing these concerns — out of a basic misconception of their legal rights.
Creating a Policy
However, Cowart encourages employers not to whip up last-minute, ad hoc policies on political speech. Rather, political harangues should be addressed in a broader non-solicitation policy. Just as you probably don’t want employees selling anything more than Girl Scout cookies around the office, or engaging in religious proselytizing, you can forbid the seeking of political converts.
Anti-solicitation policies should specify that they apply not only to oral communication and physical displays, but electronic communication, including the company’s computers and e-mail systems.
You have to use your own judgment about how detailed you want to make the policy, however. For example, you might want to explicitly ban employees from wearing political buttons, hanging political posters or bumper stickers in their offices or work stations — or not. How far to take it “depends on your own business culture,” Cowart says. Trying to micro-manage all political expression could cause more harm than good in some environments, he warns.
Also, broad anti-solicitation policies need to avoid appearing to violate employees’ freedom of religious expression. A display of a religious symbol may be protected, Cowart says.
Along similar lines, employers should be mindful that the National Labor Relations Act blocks employers from preventing employees from displays that reveal their union affiliation. Also, some states have laws that prevent employers from discriminating against employees who seek political office; anti-solicitation policies must not be construed as violating such statutes.
And, employers should be practical about the enforceability of their anti-solicitation policies. An overly restrictive policy (for example: “employees shall never discuss politics during working hours”) might be counterproductive. Employees would likely recognize that you would probably not attempt to (or even be able to) enforce such a sweeping ban, which would thereby weaken the policy.
What about the consequences of violating an anti-solicitation policy? “The best thing is to say that there can be disciplinary action for a violation, but allowing leeway for the circumstances in each case,” Cowart says. Also, the policy should make a general statement to the effect that “speech on all topics should be respectful.”
Becoming a Model of Civility
The way to make workplace civility happen requires more than a formal policy statement. Beyond laying the legal groundwork, it requires multiple personal actions — beginning with you, to set the standard. Here are several recommended by Barbara Richman, a senior consultant with HR Mpact, in Memphis:
- Consider the impact of your words on others before opening your mouth.
- Know the “hot buttons” that make you angry so that you can keep yourself from flying off the handle when those buttons are pushed.
- Collect relevant facts before you act or speak based on assumptions that may be incorrect.
- Recognize and respect the differences between people in your organization.
- Take every opportunity to be a bridge-builder between people with differing perspectives.
- When you need to describe behaviors that need to change, be as specific and detailed as possible.
- Use humor judiciously when it can relieve stress and improve the work environment, but recognize that it can be misinterpreted and cause offense.
- Be mindful that other people’s time is probably as valuable to them as yours is to you.
- Take a step back from difficult situations and put them in the broader perspective of the “big picture.”
- Remember that you are not the center of the universe.
In particular, some worry that any policy limiting political speech at the workplace might violate employees’ Constitutional rights to free speech. “But if you’re a private employer, free speech doesn’t come into play,” Cowart says. “The First Amendment only applies to government action.” That means that private employers are well within their rights to establish all kinds of policies concerning literal and figurative employee speech at the workplace.
Need help drafting a portion of your employee handbook to reflect your policy on political speech? ASE can help!