During the 2004 election, I was working in a very Democratic office in downtown Chicago. Liberal banter filled our halls. John Kerry stickers adorned our bulletin boards. George Bush trash-talking was a water cooler staple. We were having a good time. After all, it’s fun to talk politics at work when everyone agrees with you.
Except everyone didn’t.
A Stranger Among Us
We didn’t know it at first, but a member of our executive management team was a staunch Republican. He’d traditionally kept his political views out of the office, but the junior and mid-level staffers offended him to such a degree that he got angry. And instead of discussing the issues, he penalized us with heavier workloads and unfair requests. Bitterness on all sides followed, and by the time the election arrived, our friendly culture had disappeared.
Here we are in 2012 faced with another race against an incumbent that is turning ugly and controversial, and I can’t help thinking about how politics nearly destroyed several careers at my old office. It turns out that many employers share my concerns.
What First Amendment?
According to Perkins & Associates, a California-based law firm, American employers do not have to allow the flames of political tensions to fan out of control. “Although government workers are protected by federal regulations that govern free speech, private employers can restrict political discussion entirely because of its potential to create a hostile work environment,” says the firm’s Website.
Hostile work environment indeed. Uncivil political discussions open up a big can of worms. The Perkins & Associates Website also states that they can potentially violate workers' protections against discrimination based on age, gender, race and other personal variables, and leave employers and supervisors legally liable.
Employers have a responsibility to make sure that their workers are psychologically and physically comfortable during their time spent at work, and if they can’t do this, it’s only a matter of time before somebody sues.
A “Big Brother” Culture?
But is banning political discussion altogether a realistic option? And what does it say about your culture if you silence a particular viewpoint because it doesn’t gel with majority opinion, or fire an employee for speaking his or her mind about a hot-button issue? Just because something is legally defensible doesn’t mean you should do it, and chances are, you’ve worked too hard at establishing an open culture to undermine it with this type of action.
My advice to all leaders, including small-business owners, is not to shut things down so that your employees think they’re living in a Ray Bradbury novel. Instead, develop and distribute an official policy that spells out what will and won’t be tolerated in terms of political discussion.
Guidance Is Necessary
Provide very specific recommendations for engagement, advising employees to listen to others and respect all points of view, to choose the right time to talk politics (for instance, in the cafeteria rather than in front of customers), and to stay calm and rational at all times. If there are any topics you simply cannot accept discussion about, list them so that the community knows where it stands.
Finally, in terms of your business’ overall branding, it may be smart to avoid showcasing a clear party affiliation this fall. Unless your work is politically-driven, this information isn’t relevant to the mission at hand, and the risk of offending people outweighs the benefit of generating camaraderie.
Alexandra Levit is a former nationally-syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success. Money magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.