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Is it OK to talk politics at work?

Most employers can legally tell a sales rep to take down a Clinton or Trump sign posted in a cubicle, or ask squabbling employees to cease all water cooler conversation about the latest political scandal.

But that might not be the best way to build office morale.

Politics, which rank right up with religion on many professionals’ lists of subjects to avoid at work, have posed a greater-than-usual challenge for some managers and labor attorneys this election season.

Landmine topics like sexual harassment and racial discrimination, combined with the raw negative emotions many voters harbor toward the presidential candidates, have the potential to create an HR nightmare.

Creating policies limiting political talk might be tempting. Doing so, however, is not realistic for most employers.

“It’s wholly impractical to think that people won’t talk about these things at work,” said Claudia Williams, president of The Human Zone, a human resources consulting group based in Harrisburg.

“Anytime we put an all-out ban on something, it’s an invitation for that type of thing to happen,” she said.

With political talk all but inevitable, employers need to find ways to maintain a civil workplace in the weeks leading up to a particularly divisive election.

Navigating labor laws and harassment policies

Sex and national origin are protected classes under the law. Political activity is not.

That means managers would be wise to steer employees’ conversations away from dangerous territory that could even be construed as hostile toward people of a specific race, religion or gender, said Adam Santucci, a labor and employment attorney with Harrisburg-based McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC.

Political discussions in general don’t usually violate any kind of employer policy or the law, he said.

Where most employees risk running afoul of the law or company policy is when they use language or talk about topics that could be perceived as discriminatory, Santucci said. Then, even a civil conversation overheard by the wrong person could lead to a harassment issue.

“In this campaign, a lot of hot-button issues are the issues that could violate these policies,” he said.

How employers can avoid this risk depends partly on whether the company is in the private or public sector, Santucci said.

A private-sector employer can legally limit most political conversations in the workplace. While the law does protect workers who talk about the terms and conditions of their employment — which could include political topics like health care and the minimum wage — managers still have a good bit of leeway in the policies they choose to enforce.

In other words, if Bob’s boss tells him to take down the Hillary Clinton sign in his cubicle, Bob would be wise to comply if he values his job.

Most managers, however, avoid outright bans on political speech, Santucci said. Instead, they focus on curtailing conversation that could easily go down a road ending in a harassment claim.

Employers can also limit workers’ political speech outside the office if that speech could have a negative impact on the workplace.

Public-sector employees, on the other hand, have additional free speech rights under the First Amendment. Still, the same topics that could put a private-sector employee afoul of harassment policies could also land a teacher or road worker in the same hot water.

In any situation, Santucci said, employers should consult their human resources or legal departments to make sure any policies they implement mesh with the requirements of their specific workplace.

‘It really boils down to self-awareness’

A life-size cardboard cutout of a presidential candidate greeted visitors in Williams’ office a few election cycles ago. It created some good-natured jokes between her and her co-workers.

She couldn’t get away with that this year.

“This particular election is getting people so fired up,” she said. “At work with co-workers is not where you want to get fired up.”

That’s why Matthew Randall, executive director of York College’s Center for Professional Excellence, tells his students to avoid politics at work altogether.

Even just proclaiming support for one candidate or another can make people assume you agree with everything that politician stands for, he cautioned.

“Because it’s such a divisive topic, it can actually change people’s perspective of other people and at times even damage working relationships,” he said.

Students generally understand that, but putting that knowledge into practice when a casual conversation goes down that road can prove tricky as emotion takes over. In those cases, people might be best off excusing themselves from the conversation, saying that, as a rule, they don’t talk about politics at work.

Williams, however, thinks employees can have mature and productive conversations about a candidate’s merits. These conversations can even lead to helpful insights about accountability, the value of diversity and other subjects relevant to people’s careers.

The onus lies on employees to ask themselves how they feel about a topic, she said. If they feel so strongly that they can’t accept someone else’s opinions, they might want to avoid bringing it up.

“It really boils down to self-awareness,” she said.

Managers, however, still need to be ready to make sure employees stop a conversation if it gets out of hand.

“I have an obligation to step in,” she said. “I should want to go in and save these people from themselves.”

Jennifer Wentz
Jennifer Wentz covers Lancaster County, York County, financial services, taxation and legal services. Have a tip or question for her? Email her at [email protected].

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