Politics have reached an emotional fever pitch in the United States and divisiveness is at least a 50-year high. Leaders need to plan now how to maintain a civil workplace. So, can you outright ban political discussions? In many cases, yes. But you might want to consider whether that’s worth trying to police. After all, these conversations are going to take place whether you ban them or embrace them.
When implementing an organizational approach or enforcing a policy already in place, you need to know how federal and state laws affect such discussions as well as your ability to intervene.
No federal statute protects private employees who want to express their political opinions at work. The right to free speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution only guards against government censorship. So while public employers must be aware of their limitations, private companies have no such obligations under the amendment. Therefore, when Joe Employee says he has the right to free speech at work, you can confidently tell him otherwise.
However, there is a federal law to consider when politically based chats turn into group discussions on the terms and conditions of employment, such as health care benefits. The federal National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1938 guarantees both union and nonunion employees the right to “protected concerted activity,” meaning they can discuss employment conditions among themselves freely, even passionately, and employers cannot quell such dialogues or take adverse actions against the employees. While you can limit such discussions to the employees’ own time, know that their lunchroom conversations, after-work talks and social media postings could be protected under the NLRA.
Only a few states provide safeguards for workers expressing political beliefs, and most of those protect only an employee’s right to pursue legal off-duty political activity. Oregon offers more protection, though. The state’s 2009 Worker Freedom Act prohibits employers from forcing employees to attend political meetings and from distributing political communications.
So, where state law allows, employers can hold mandatory political meetings and distribute politically based communications to their employees. The U.S. Supreme Court in its 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission lifted restrictions on financial contributions that corporations and unions can make to support political advertising or issues as long as they don’t contribute directly to a candidate. The ruling gave birth to “Super PACs” (political action committees), through which companies can indirectly support candidates or issues.
The decision also removed limits on employer communications with rank-and-file employees regarding an organization’s political leanings. It means that employers are allowed to communicate their political beliefs directly to employees and to require them to attend meetings or other political activities. Previously, employers could only require managers to do so. So, if you as an employer want to hold mandatory political meetings with employees who then cry foul, you can cite the Supreme Court’s decision where state law allows it.
On a final note, current rhetoric in particular could prompt negative comments regarding women, religion and national origin, so consistently enforcing your existing anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies—and perhaps conducting some timely retraining—will serve you well.
Russell Lookadoo is the HR Guy for small businesses. His firm, HRchitecture, specializes in helping business leaders accomplish their goals by effectively using their teams. Russell brings over three decades of experience designing Human Resources solutions that achieve business strategies in varied organizations ranging from a small manufacturer to the nation’s second largest bank. Russell holds the Senior Professional in Human Resources designation from the Society of Human Resources Management and earned the Certified Compensation Professional designation from World at Work. Russell attended the University of North Carolina on the prestigious Morehead-Cain Scholarship and graduated with a Bachelor’s in Industrial Relations. Visit his website at www.theHRGuy.biz