Politics in the Workplace: Where Do You Draw the Line?

Politics in the workplace can create divisive arguments and harsh feelings, but is it legal for an employer to prohibit political activity at work?



Election year always bring a bit of political tension that oftentimes spills over to the workplace. But where do you draw the line from allowing employees to freely express themselves to preventing a hostile debate that damages morale and productivity?

Politics in the workplace: what is legal

First of all, it’s important to note that while the First Amendment allows freedom of speech, it doesn’t mean employees have the right to talk about whatever they’d like while at work. Yes, it’s legal for a private employer to curb what employees talk about at work… to a point.

There are plenty of laws that protect employees from harassment, discrimination, retaliation, or anything that could create a hostile work environment. And, unfortunately, many political discussions can lead to one of those uncomfortable situations --- which provides a leeway for employers to dissuade political topics from happening at work.

However, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) says that employees have the right to engage in “concerted activities for the purpose of … mutual aid or protection.” In other words, employees can engage in political advocacy, arguments and debates if the issue at hand relates to labor or work conditions. And that’s where things get a little unclear.

Let’s say an employee participates in a protest about immigration reform. Is this protected activity? Yes! The employee cannot be fired or retaliated against for being part of the demonstration, as this sufficiently relates to employees’ “mutual aid or protection.”

But the NLRA doesn’t go so far as to offer protection for employees who engage in these political activities at the sacrifice of their job or job performance, nor can they intimidate or threaten coworkers. That means there are boundaries employers can and should enforce.

Politics in the workplace: how to steer clear of what’s illegal

So how do private employers avoid the polarizing effect of politics being discussed at work? They carefully adopt a policy that limits politics at work without infringing on employee rights protected by the NLRA.

For example, a policy may restrict employees from wearing any campaign paraphernalia to work or displaying posters that endorse a particular candidate or party. But you need to clarify within the policy that employees are not restricted from discussing work conditions or participating in any concerted activity protected by the NLRA.

You must also be cautious of including any bans within your Politics in the Workplace Policy, as those bans must be uniformly applied to everyone within the company. For example, if you say employees are prohibited from campaigning for a candidate during work hours, a manager will not receive a special exception to collect signatures for a political figure while at work.

Remember, your purpose is to establish expectations and to maintain a collaborative, positive workplace where employees do not feel intimidated, harassed or otherwise pressured to support one particular candidate or party over another. If you anticipate something could happen that might push this limit, that’s where you draw the line.

For questions or assistance with developing your Politics in the Workplace Policy, please contact your certified HR expert. Not a current Stratus HR client? Book a free consultation and our team will contact you shortly.

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