In a BusinessWeek article, Bruce Weinstein, PhD., who calls himself “The Ethics Guy,”says that most political issues are by their nature highly divisive. At stake in this year’s presidential election, he adds, are such questions as these, all guaranteed to have the potential for controversy:
Although our individual answers to these questions usually have little or nothing to do with our jobs or our ability to do them, Weinstein suggests, the discussions can substantially disrupt the workplace.
As a general rule, employers have the right to regulate and control employee work time, and that right extends to controlling political activity that interferes with work performance. If employers and employees understand these limits, as well as the legal requirements regarding taking time off to vote, problems can be avoided.
“Being politically correct at the office means communicating carefully and inclusively,” suggests Bernadette Kenny, chief career officer at Adecco USA. “It’s important to keep things professional.” Here are Kenny’s suggestions for managing political discussions in the coming months.
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While the laws and court decisions vary from state to state and jurisdiction to jurisdiction, there is a trend toward allowing employees to do pretty much what they please off work—as long as it does not interfere with their work or their employer’s business, says Kenny.
Therefore, an employer’s actions against employees for political activity are most likely to be supported when the employer:
Today’s workplace is extremely diverse, says Kenny, with a wide range of perspectives, opinions, and political viewpoints. While your own political affiliation may not mirror those of the people in the next cubicles, it is important to be respectful of others’ opinions to maintain productive working relationships.
Colleagues can get very passionate when talking about politics and discussions can get heated. Kenny says that when emotions run high, the line between personal and professional can become blurred. “No matter where the conversation takes you, remember you are at work.”
If the conversation becomes too heated, excuse yourself by saying you have a deadline to meet, a meeting to attend, or a phone call to return, says Kenny.
This will give you an easy out to end the conversation.
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In view of the potential strife, private employers may want to ban all political discussion. Generally, employers do not choose this route simply because enforcing such a ban is difficult, if next to impossible.
Nevertheless, if talking politics interferes with work or becomes disruptive, employers probably will need to ban work-time political discussions. For example, if an employee engages other employees in a debate and tries to persuade them to vote for a particular candidate, this would likely interfere with work.
Some employees will be relieved by the policy, because they do not want to be forced into political discussions or fear that if they don’t agree, it will jeopardize their workplace relationships. Other employees may see heated political discussion as harassment, so it is best for the employer to put an end to it.
Yet experts believe that HR should not create a policy banning all political conversations—it can seem draconian. Instead, they advise including a segment in ongoing training for supervisors on the potentially disastrous consequences of unfettered political discussion. That way, employees who are sure of their audience can talk all they want, while others tread lightly around the topic.
In tomorrow’s Advisor, sample polices on political discussion at work, plus an introduction to the indispensible 50x50—50 Employment Laws in 50 States.
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