For generations of Americans, conversations about politics just didn’t happen at the workplace. It was simply too taboo a subject and few employees were willing to touch it with a ten-foot pole.
Today, though, America is more divided along party lines than it has ever been and political conversations are creeping into the office more and more.
According to an October 2019 poll of American workers conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)… This text opens a new tab to the a study on politics at work…:
- 56 percent say that the discussion of political issues has become more common in the last four years.
- 42 percent say they’ve personally experienced political disagreements in the workplace.
- 34 percent said their workplace was not inclusive of differing political perspectives.
- 1 in 10 say they have been treated differently at work because of their political views.
It should be possible for coworkers to keep discourse about any subject civil while at work, even when they disagree. But, when conversations get personal, it can have troubling effects on morale and productivity, and could cause rifts in working relationships that were otherwise collaborative.
Plus, when political discussions stray into the territory of protected classes, that can even present legal problems for employers.
Your role as a manager
As a dental office manager, it is your responsibility to create and maintain a workplace that is free from hostility, intimidation, and discrimination for all of your employees.
That means making sure that your employees understand:
- Your expectations regarding the civility of conversations at work.
- What it means to cross the line from expressing an opinion or making a joke into the realm of potential harassment.
- Your company’s harassment policies.
- How to report concerns to management, should one arise.
Since so many topics can blur the line between the political and personal, be aware that even calm, seemingly lighthearted discussions about political issues between like-minded employees can be problematic if overheard by someone who stands on the opposite side of the issue being discussed (imagine a conversation about limiting immigration, the virtues of a border wall, or support for travel bans taking place within earshot of a Latinx or Muslim coworker, for instance).
That may have you thinking that you should simply ban political discussions in your workplace, outright. But, not only would such a policy be nearly impossible to enforce, sweeping bans on what your employees can and cannot discuss could have a negative impact on employee morale. And, when conversations are relevant to employee wages or working conditions, they’re also likely to be protected by law.
When is employee speech protected by law?
Admittedly, what you can and cannot legally control in terms of political expression in the workplace isn’t exactly crystal-clear.
Here are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind when looking to limit or discipline political conversations that take place between employees of your dental practice:
The First Amendment
Generally speaking, private employers are not required to protect their employees’ First Amendment right to free speech.
For the most part, business owners and managers can limit the types of discourse they allow at the workplace or online… This text opens a new tab to an article on social media policies at work…, as long as the limits you set do not violate your employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)… This text opens a new tab to the National Labor Relation Act….
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)
Under the NLRA, employees must be allowed to discuss issues that pertain to their wages, working conditions, hours, and their right to unionize and participate in collective bargaining (even if they don’t have a union or intend to form one).
This law actually gives your employees the legal right to complain about their jobs (and their managers) to each other and, in some cases, even on social media. It also allows them to discuss issues that might impact their wages or working conditions, including having discussions about political topics and candidates that could impact their working conditions or wages at a later date.
So, if you happen to overhear your employees discussing a particular candidate’s stance on minimum wage, for instance, as much as it might drive you crazy, it’s likely that their right to have that conversation is actually protected by law.
State and local laws
There are some state and local laws… This text opens a new tab to an article on political discussions at work… that protect employees’ rights to engage in political activities. Most of those laws are meant to allow employees to support candidates or even run for office themselves while off-duty, and to restrict employers from imposing their own political leanings on their staff. But there are some laws that go even further in protecting political speech at work.
Make sure you are familiar with the laws governing political expression in your area and work with an HR professional… This text opens a new tab to the CEDR HR Solutions website… and/or a local employment law expert when looking to implement a policy limiting any type of speech or expression for your business.
Address disruptions, not opinions
You can’t always control what people say, but you can address the impact of statements your employees make on the workplace.
When it comes to political expression, rather than disciplining employees for the content of a political statement they’ve made or opinion they’ve expressed, it’s much safer to address the way that they said it and/or the disruption it caused at work (unless, of course, the “what” behind those statements can be interpreted as hostile or harassing to employees in protected classes… This text opens a new tab to a CEDR article on preventing political tension at work…).
Ultimately, your employees need to know that they still need to be able to get along with their coworkers, no matter their political leanings, and that the workplace needs to be harassment- and intimidation-free at all times for everyone on the team.
If something an employee said causes other team members or patients to feel uncomfortable or creates distractions that prevent other employees from doing their jobs, address the impact of those statements with the employee in question without policing their viewpoint on the issue being discussed.
That said, the best way to handle a political explosion in the workplace is to prevent them from happening in the first place… This text opens a new tab to tips for managers dealing with politics in the workplace….
Employers do have some control over the types of conversations that take place between their employees at work. Still, it’s not practical to expect that you can prevent any and all political conversations at your practice simply by banning them.
When political conversations do occur between employees, be careful not to silence discussions related to wages or working conditions — those conversations are actually protected by the NLRA. You’ll also need to be aware of whether or not political speech or activity is a protected right of employees in your state or municipality before trying to institute any type of ban.
When those conversations veer into the realm of harassment, however, it is your responsibility to address them. Just do your best to focus your attention on the negative impact on the workplace caused by an employee’s comments rather than policing the content or viewpoint of those comments.
For more on this subject, including 6 tips for managers dealing with divisive politics at work, check out our blog, “Politics in the Workplace: Managing to Prevent Political Tension at Work… This text opens a new tab to tips for managers dealing with politics in the workplace….”