Thursday, July 21, 2016

Managing Politics and Social Issues at Work

This is a time of intense politics and troubling news.  The headlines – and the strong feelings they generate – inevitably affect the workplace.  Managers and HR professionals often end up moderating political arguments and consoling employees distraught over national and world events, all in an effort to prevent conflict and make sure the work is getting done.

Although every workplace is different, we find that taking certain actions can help keep politics, social issues, and high emotion from putting an organization at risk.

Establish clear (and lawful) guidelines for workplace communications.  As we recently noted, there is no free speech in the workplace.  Private employers can limit and control political expression at work, just as they can control workplace violence, discriminatory speech and actions, and harassment. What employers cannot do, of course, is prevent employees from talking about working conditions or wages; those conversations are protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act.  Guidelines for employee speech and behavior should be clearly expressed and consistently applied.  The run-up to an election and periods of social upheaval are appropriate times to reiterate those guidelines and remind employees what is expected of them.

Keep guidelines realistic.  It’s not possible to prevent every political discussion in the lunch room or every reaction to current events that takes place behind closed office doors.  Guidelines controlling political speech should focus on speech that imposes one employee’s views on others, disrupts employees’ ability to work, or becomes disrespectful.

Provide an appropriate outlet for strong feelings.  An employee who is disrupting the workplace with his or her political views or reaction to social issues may need a safe place to vent.  That could be an Employee Assistance Program, if one is available.  It may also be useful to remind the employee that there are political and social affinity groups available – outside the workplace.

Distinguish between expressing political views at work and private expression.  Political or social opinions expressed on social media only become the business of the employer when they directly impact the workplace.  For all the same reasons that it may not be wise for supervisors to “friend” their subordinates on social media, however, it’s probably not wise for supervisors and subordinates to argue politics on social media.

Require managers to model good behavior.  Nothing undermines a policy more quickly than violations by managers and supervisors.  Regardless of how strong a manager’s political opinions or views on social issues may be, he or she must stay in strict compliance with workplace policies and held immediately accountable for violations.

Treat all political opinions equally.  If an employer discourages political speech in the workplace, it must discourage the expression of all political views. It is human nature for business owners, managers, and HR professionals to find political views they agree with less intrusive or disruptive than opposing points of view, but applying different standards to the expression of certain political views can only lead to more conflict.

Focus on respect and civility.  Employers are in a position to create and maintain a respectful work environment, where civil expression of opposing viewpoints is required.  In times like these, doing so can make work a place of respite from angry disagreements and overheated rhetoric.

Posted by Judy Langevin