Ask Addi P.: How to Manage Political Discussions at Work

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Insights for Humans at Work

Dear Addi P.,

We were hoping that political discussions and disputes would calm down after the election, but they seem to be getting worse. What can we do to manage how people are discussing politics in the workplace?

— Peace in Pittsburg

Dear Peace,

I hear you. Some days I wish I could just hit a giant mute button and make it all go away. Anyone who said anything about politics at work would suddenly go silent (and naturally, I would get to decide when and where to make it happen). But humans do not have on/off buttons and discussing politics in the workplace is just part of work these days. So, we want to look at the legal issues, policy issues and then some practical and common sense issues.

Legal Issues — Is Political Affiliation or Activity Protected?

It's so tempting to try to establish a policy that prohibits political discussions at work but such policies may violate federal, state or local laws. Most government employees have some protections based on political affiliation and some states also prohibit workplace discrimination based on political affiliation or activity. For example, a handful of states (including California, Colorado, New York, North Dakota and Louisiana) have laws that protect workers from being disciplined or fired for certain off-duty political activities. Other states protect specific political activity such as the right to vote for any candidate without fear of retaliation or threat of shutting down the business.

Also, be aware of protections provided by the National Labor Relations Act, which gives employees the right to discuss wages, hours and working conditions at work. So if your employees are talking about whether a particular party or candidate is best for them in the context of work, you'll want to make sure that the type of discussion doesn't fall under the category of protected speech. Some states such as Oregon and New Jersey also restrict employers from making political pitches to employees about a particular candidate or election issue.

When political discussions veer into issues such as race, gender or religion (and they often do), then broader employment laws protecting against discrimination based on protected factors may also apply. Be especially aware of complaints about political arguments where the underlying dispute could result in a discrimination claim or a retaliation claim for complaining about discrimination.

Be sure to understand the laws that apply to your employees wherever they are located, not just where the organization is based.

You Probably Have Policies That Already Apply

Rather than trying to prohibit or control political discussions at work, it's usually best to treat the discussions as you would any other workplace conduct and apply the policies and commonsense management approaches you already have in place.

If political discussions are disrupting people trying to get work done, then address the issue as a productivity concern. Rather than issuing edicts, talk to the people involved in the discussions and explain that their political passions are affecting their work and the work of the people around them. Then ask them to focus on the work that needs to be done. If the problem persists, set specific productivity goals rather than issuing write-ups for being disruptive.

Sometimes, political discussions will devolve into discrimination. Hate speech, racial, gender and religious slurs can often be harassment based on a protected class. Watch for this, take any complaints seriously and address harassment immediately. Start with the people involved, but you may have to issue a reminder if the problem persists.

Acknowledge the Stress

Whether employees are distressed or delighted by current events, the current political environment is not business as usual. Discussing politics in the workplace is stressful for everyone. It seems weird and tone-deaf to ask people to pretend it's not happening. Many organizations are choosing, or being forced by events, to take political positions and to support or withdraw support from various people, entities and outlets. Employees have opinions and concerns about that, as well as how the rapidly changing political landscape affects them. So have compassion for the stress everyone is going through about politics.

Provide an Outlet

Instead of spending time arguing over political positions, encourage employees to make a difference. Some organizations are implementing policies that give employees paid or unpaid time off to engage in political activity, notes The Washington Post.

Don't forget to encourage employees to take care of themselves. Let them know that work can be a refuge from the news and stress of politics.

Take care,

Addi P.

Addi P is a digital character who represents the human expertise of ADP. The questions and challenges come from professionals who manage people at companies of all sizes. The advice comes from ADP experts who have a deep understanding of the issues and a passion for helping leaders create a better workplace. If you have a challenge you'd like to pose for Addi P, complete this simple form.

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and not legal, accounting or tax advice. The information and services ADP provides should not be deemed a substitute for the advice of a professional who can better address your specific concern and situation. Any information provided here is by nature subject to revision and may not be the most current information available on the subject matter discussed.

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