Free speech is great. So is a civil, respectful workplace.
I’m originally from England, where most people don’t believe their political views are anyone else’s business—it’s a private matter, you see. So imagine my surprise upon arriving in this country more than 30 years ago and discovering that America’s political system looked remarkably like a three-ring circus.
It hasn’t gotten any better in recent years. Free speech is one of the great joys of being an American, but our sharp political debates also have the power to turn even the most tolerant people into short-fused tyrants.
Regardless of your personal positions on the matter, you can see the distraction, if not the harm, vocal employees can cause when they set up their soapbox in your workplace. While everyone has every right to their own opinion, pursuing political debates in the office can land you in some seriously hot water.
Title VII and Your Business
Business owners need to take politics in the workplace seriously because of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
If you don’t know anything about Title VII, you should. It’s the primary nondiscrimination regulation in this country, and employers need to not only understand it, but follow it in their businesses.
Basically, Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Some states take their regulations a step further and extend their discrimination laws to sexual orientation, too.
Fast-forward to 2016 and the looming presidential election, where immigration, gay marriage, abortion, justice reform and other hot-button topics have become campaign issues.
Do any of those topics sound like things that are covered under Title VII?
Problems develop when political opinions and the workplace collide. From banter in the lunchroom, to people being ostracized because of their political views, to downright sexist, racist and religious assaults all in the name of politics, I’ve seen it all.
There’s also the added layer of social media, which means that any employee, at any time, can go off on a rant about the ills of the “other” side. And if they’re connected online to co-workers, it’s the same as standing in the reception area with a bullhorn. Someone, somewhere, is eventually going to be offended.
As an employer, you’re responsible when someone comes to you and complains about a co-worker because they’ve taken their political opinions or banter too far—and you, by law, have to deal with it. There’s nothing like an investigation surrounding loudly expressed political views, especially when they cross the line of Title VII, and unfortunately, they invariably do.
Set the Right Tone
As an employer, what can you do? Suppressing your employees’ rights to free speech doesn’t sound particularly progressive. But you do have liability if you don’t set the tone in your workplace.
Fewer than 10 percent of employers have any kind of employee policy addressing political views and activity in the workplace, and many employers don’t view political diatribes in the workplace as offensive—until they end up with a complaining employee who feels that their rights have been violated.
Here are a few suggestions. Create policy around your expectations when it comes to political views, but be careful. You probably don’t want to do this without a professional because the National Labor Relations Board has some complex standards to consider.
Or, if that seems a little extreme, at least set the tone. It can be as simple as a message during your next staff meeting reminding people that the joy of this country is that people have a right to choose whatever political party they want to, but they should also respect the opinions of others.
Maybe you let people know that because there are differing opinions on the subject of politics—all of which are personal—they don’t really have a place in the workplace. The message will be sent. It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.
Ultimately, it all comes down to respect. That’s the reason that discrimination laws were enacted in this country in the first place.