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Managing political discussions in the workplace

By Lynne Curry, Ph.D., SPHR  bio

During the Justice Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, more than fifty percent of Americans admitted they had taken part in political discussions in the workplace. Many of these discussions ended in conflict, frayed relationships, and tears.

With the current high-stakes mid-term election, employers can expect more heated political discussions, lost productivity, and damaged workplace relationships.

What employers may and may not do

Employers generally can limit political discussions that disrupt work, such as full-volume shouting matches, as long as the restrictions they impose do not violate the National Labor Relations Act. The NLRA gives private sector employees the right to engage in concerted activities for mutual aid or protection. This means that employers may not prohibit conversations relating to working conditions, such as comments about minimum wage, immigration, #MeToo, or equal pay, when employees couch these discussions in the context of current events or politics.

Our constitution’s first amendment protects public employees from discipline as the result of their protected free speech or political views. That said, public employees may not use public resources such as their own work hours for campaigning.

Employers can set limits for the lengths and volume of discussions they will and will not allow in the work place and on work time; however, it may be difficult to enforce these restrictions. Employers need to be cautious about implementing “civility” rules, as the National Labor Relations Board has often ruled that protected discussions by their very nature may be inflammatory. For guidance concerning what works, employers can look to recent NLRB case law, such as The Boeing Co., 365 NLRB No. 154 (2017), in which the NLRB approved Boeing’s  rule that promoted “harmonious interactions and relationships” and general civility in the workplace. In their ruling, the NLRB outlined that civility rules may provide “common sense” standards of conduct. 

Protecting employees

Meanwhile, employers need to protect their employees from political discussions that create a hostile or discriminatory work environment, such as ones that veer into race, national origin, or gender. For example, a remark about “jobs not mobs” could quickly morph into a racially charged discussion. If you learn one of your employees perceives a heated discussion as discriminatory or hostile toward a legally protected group, investigate the situation and if warranted, issue a reprimand to the harassing employee.

If one of your employees alleges he’s being harassed for his or her political beliefs, realize employers have responsibility for maintaining safe work environments, free from hostility, which includes protecting employees from being bullied by politically-driven coworkers. At the same time, political affiliation is not a protected class and harassment over political beliefs generally doesn’t constitute illegal behavior in most jurisdictions.

3 things you can do right now

What can employers do?

  1. They can provide training that teaches employees how to maintain civility when engaged in conflict-laden discussions.
  1. They can remind employees of the categories legally protected against discrimination or harassment such as race, age, color, age, sex, religion, pregnancy, national origin or disability, whether mental or physical.
  1. They can ask managers to deal with a heated political discussion as they would any other conflict that escalates. I advised a client last week to say to two combatants, “I realize you’re both passionate about your candidates; however, this distracts you both from customer calls, forcing others to pick up the slack. Please get back to work.”

Lynne Curry, PhD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is author of “Beating the Workplace Bully” and “Solutions,” which has great articles on how to remember names & 60 real-life workplace dramas with practical solutions. Both have 4.8-star ratings on

Curry and her group regularly work with law firms and medical practices and hospitals, providing HR on-call, training, expert witness work, facilitation, strategic planning, investigation, mediation, and executive and professional coaching. You can reach her at or or via LinkedIn or Twitter @lynnecurry1.

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