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Should you put a lid on political talk in the office?

The current presidential campaign is certainly intriguing. Who doesn’t have an opinion about a recent rally, debate or op-ed? No doubt your staff members do. But do you want them to voice these opinions at the office?

With political sentiments high—and getting higher—one issue that managers face is how to keep the discussions between staff members from becoming heated to the point of disrupting the workplace, perhaps causing discrimination claims or even leading to workplace violence.

So what do you do? Can the practice solve the problem by forbidding political discussions entirely?

No, says Michael S. Cohen, an employment lawyer with the Philadelphia firm Duane Morris. “Ideally, it would be great to be able to curb it,” notes Cohen, “but legally and practically it’s just not feasible. First, you’d have trouble preventing it. And then what would you do if your employees do talk about politics? Fire them? Not likely.”

Besides that, says Cohen, the National Labor Relations Board would likely say you’re squashing free speech and curbing a legal activity.

What’s the problem with a little discussion?

“We have a far more interested and emotional base of employees than we’ve seen in the past,” says Cohen. “There’s a 24-hour news cycle. Information is available everywhere and all the time on TV and on social media. You can’t get away from it. And for better or worse, we’re dealing with controversial candidates, which makes it more interesting to discuss.”

But there are good reasons to keep political discussions out of the office. On the business side, the discussions take employees away from their responsibilities. Worse, they can be disruptive.

“The problem is loss of productivity,” says Cohen. “If you’re not losing productivity, it’s not being enhanced either.”

There’s also a concern about the potential for workplace violence.

“The presidential election is dealing with people who have strong personal opinions and concerns,” says Cohen. “Sure, violence is not a logical response to the conversations, but with heated conversations about deeply held opinions, the possibility of violence is concerning. Disagreement is OK as long as there is respect, but when the candidates don’t act with respect there’s no reason to think their followers will.”

Besides the potential for violence, heated political discussions are a legal landmine in an office. If someone denigrates a candidate’s race, sexual orientation, age or religion, the firm could see a claim of harassment or discrimination.

How to deal with the issue

A manager has to create, embrace, and enhance a culture of mutual respect, advises Cohen. And a natural fit for political conversations is in a broad-based diversity program.

“Compare political discussions to conversations about religion,” he says. “You can prohibit proselytizing. Likewise, it’s OK to discuss politics, but not to take a position of trying to convince others over to your way of thinking.”

What about political signs, political buttons, and political clothes? These materials can generate the same problems that can arise out of political conversations.

“Your EEO policy can also address the use of political materials or telling of political jokes,” says Cohen. “Tell your staff, ‘We’re going to allow buttons and conversations and jokes, as long as you don’t violate our EEO policy.’ As long as they’re appropriate, they’re OK. And as long as the focus of the joke is not a membership of a protected class, such as race, age or gender, it’s OK.”

Final points

Remember to include in your EEO policy a complaint procedure, a contact person for complaints, and be ready to discipline the violators.

With all work policies, you need to be even-handed and apply them uniformly. Be sure to enforce this policy just as stringently as you enforce any other policy. Otherwise, expect problems, such as “You let Employee A get away with it. How come I can’t? Maybe it’s because I’m ____ [fill in the blank].”

As further protection, in the weeks leading up to a controversial election, send out a memo pointing out that an election is coming up and outline the firm’s policy around political discussions in the office.

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