Racial tensions in America have been dominating the news for several months. Not surprisingly, a new CBS/New York Times poll finds that over 60% of Americans believe that race relations in America are bad and getting worse—the highest percentage in 25 years.
Some responses to these statistics will argue that arrests and detentions occur where crime exists and that there is simply more crime committed in communities of color. Others will argue that law enforcement officers have the most dangerous jobs around and should never be subject to “second-guessing.”
The nation is hotly and passionately arguing these issues in schools and at home, and you know they do so at work, too. Is this a problem for employers? It sure can be. How do you deal with it?
What’s an employer to do?
Public discussions could be about President Barack Obama, and they will heat up during the next 10 months of political campaigning. Or they could be about the conduct and legacy of Bill Cosby, who is now beginning to address the sexual assault charges against him. And employee complaints about America’s overly expensive healthcare system can quickly devolve into a discussion of the kind of medical coverage you are providing to them.
It would be nice if you could just declare, “Nobody can talk about politics or race at work,” but you can’t—for several reasons. First, as a practical matter, it won’t work. You can’t control what people talk about, especially during meal and rest breaks. Second, employees are permitted to discuss matters that they perceive to affect their terms of employment, and sometimes that includes race relations or the economy or ObamaCare. So taken at its broadest, a directive not to discuss politics or race at work could run afoul of both the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) rules.
But there are some things you can do:
- Control your managers and supervisors. While you can’t effectively limit your rank-and-file employees, you have more control over what your supervisors and managers can say. When your supervisors talk race or politics at work, there is little to be gained and much more to lose, so your policies should prevent that.
- Create and maintain a place to complain. While employees may have a right to discuss current events on the job, that doesn’t mean they won’t become offended and blame it on a harassing or discriminatory workplace. Your policies should urge them to take their concerns to HR if they feel offended by any workplace comments so you can get an early warning and a chance to cure a problem.
- Make sure everyone knows the rules. While you can’t ban political speech or punish employees for their political views, you can still prohibit and punish harassing or discriminatory conduct. For example, there is a big difference between opposing reproductive choice and harassing a woman who chooses to have an abortion. The former is protected speech; the latter is not. Nor is screaming or hurling insults protected conduct. Your employees need to understand these subtle but important differences.
America has become a more polarized nation, and every indication is that this will continue, especially during political seasons. You can’t completely immunize your workplace from it, but you can and should institute policies and procedures to make sure the discussions remain polite and that political opinions don’t affect workplace conduct.