Considerations for Talking About Politics in the Workplace

Considerations for Talking About Politics in the Workplace

How well are you managing the topic of politics in your workplace?

Politics have never been a hotter topic whether you're at a family gathering, neighborhood BBQ, or around the office water cooler. With the potential to fracture relationships and stifle productivity, politics in the workplace is a dangerous proposition, and it's unlikely these conversations will wane anytime soon.

Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about employer responsibilities when it comes to voting during work hours and protecting employees from the discomfort that often results from politics in the workplace.

Q: Our work hours are 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, however the polling locations in our state are open from 6:00 am – 8:00 pm. Can we tell employees to go before work or after work with these work hours?

A: It depends. This is a fact-specific question depending on whether there is a state specific rule regarding voting leave. For example, some states require employers to provide time off to vote if the employee does not have "sufficient time outside of working hours" to vote while the polls are open. Some state rules also provide for whether an employer may specify when the employee may take leave. In those cases, employers may generally impose requirements as long as the time off meets the state's minimum requirements. In states that don't have provisions addressing whether employers can specify when leave is taken, employers may be able to request, but not require that employees take such time.

Q: My state requires me to provide paid voting time to my employees. Do I have to change my current Paid Time Off policy?

A: Many states provide for a specific amount of time that employees must be allowed off to vote and some states require that time to be paid. Check your state's voting leave law for additional guidance on how your PTO policy may be impacted by leave requirements.

Q: My state has been closing more polling places, and I'm concerned it's going to take employees more time to vote as a result. What can I do?

A: Check your state law to see if you are allowed to specify when voting leave can be taken. If you are allowed to dictate the timing of leave, you can schedule it at the beginning or end of the employee shifts, or for when the polls are least busy. In general, this is before 8AM. If you aren't allowed to choose when the leave is taken, you can still encourage employees to vote during quieter times but will likely not be able to require it.

Q: What about encouraging employees to vote? Can I do that?

A: Employers may encourage employees to vote but should be wary about expressing support for any particular candidate. Throwing support behind a particular candidate — especially for those in a supervisory role — may create resentment among some employees. Never try to coerce workers to vote a certain way, which may violate certain laws. However, you may encourage workers to educate themselves about the issues.

Q: One of my employees is running for the state legislature. Do I have to keep their position open if they get elected?

A: Some states expressly prohibit employers from taking adverse action against employees because they're a political candidate, an elected official, or miss time from work in order to perform duties associated with their elected position. Some states also require employers to provide unpaid leave so employees can serve as elected officials, so you'll want to check your state law to ensure compliance.

Q: Last year, one of my employees asked for time off to vote but another employee later complained that he was bragging that he just used the time off to go out drinking. How can I verify employees are using the time for its intended purpose?

A: While voting-leave abuse is rare, it can be frustrating for employers when it happens. Some states require employees to show proof of voting or attempting to vote in order to be entitled to pay. If your employees are in one of these states you can require them to provide proof. The state generally provides for the type of proof that you can require which usually consists of a voter's receipt or a form from the state.

If your state doesn't require proof, you can still request it, but may not be able to require it. If you do ask for proof, make sure you are consistent and request proof from all of your employees who take time off to vote.

Q: One of my employees is complaining about an offensive political cartoon a co-worker sent via email to a couple of employees. What should I do?

A: In this case, you have a few options to consider. You could conduct an investigation, and evaluate whether the employee's activity is protected by law, such as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) or applicable state laws. You should also determine whether the employee's conduct violates company policy. The behavior could be contributing to a hostile work environment if it contains offensive comments about a person's protected characteristics (such as their gender, race or ethnicity). In this case, this may violate the company's anti-harassment or anti-discrimination policy. If you believe further disciplinary action may be warranted, consider how the company has handled similar situations in the past before taking such action.

If you're still unsure on how to proceed, err on the side of caution and consult with legal counsel.

Q: We often hear certain elected officials make statements about particular groups of individuals and how to treat them. How do I respond to an employee who repeats these statements to other employees by attributing these comments to the elected official?

A: In these circumstances, employers should review the comments to determine whether they could be perceived as offensive or harassing, or otherwise contribute to low employee morale. The fact that an employee may be repeating statements by an elected official or party candidate does not shield them from workplace conduct policies. For example, if those statements refer to individuals of a certain racial or ethnic status and are deemed offensive, that employee may be in violation of a company's anti-harassment or discrimination policy and employers should adhere to the same investigative and applicable disciplinary processes as they would for other employees.

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