Monday July 11, 2016
Some people want to force conversations about the elephant in the room. Some people want to behave like asses. And I’m not really addressing either political party as much as I am behaviors that seem to be commonplace in our society when it comes to this polarizing presidential election.
We’ve still got 4 months until a new president is elected. You may feel so strongly about your candidate of choice that you want to try to persuade employees to vote your way. Conversely, with all the commercials, mailings, phone calls, and other attempts to get your vote, the last thing you may want in your workplace is more politics.
Politics can be just as divisive in the workplace as they can be in social settings. In the workplace though, there can also be an impact on productivity. Political expression, like many other topics, can be curtailed in the workplace in work locations on work time… if you want to.
Private employers are not governmental entities, and do not have to protect “free speech.” You can shut down all conversations about politics and many other subjects that you believe are contentious in your work place – during work time in work areas. You have less ability to do so in the break room, and may not want to.
Dealing with issues like this is not a science – it’s more of an art. If you crack down too much on political talk, you could impact your culture and take some of the fun out of the workplace. Shutting down all political banter could sound a bit draconian and impact morale and perceptions of leadership. However, if you are too lenient, you could have increasing hostilities between employees of different political persuasions, and a decrease in productivity. You have to gauge the appropriate balance between both.
Then there’s your culture. If you’ve taken the time to establish group norms that everyone knows and is accountable to, those should go a long way in terms of setting the boundaries for appropriate behaviors even when discussing politics. If your group norms and culture create a sensitive environment where everyone will be treated with the utmost dignity and respect, subjects like politics can be touchy. If your group norms and culture make it clear that being blunt is ok, and that having a thicker skin is a needed trait, politics may be fair game.
Whatever your group norms may be, consistency is your friend. Your culture and norms will mean nothing if you don’t hold everyone to the same standard – even if their views are different from yours. This is an excellent time for you to set the example and reinforce the standard. Lead on.
Once outside of the office, it becomes more interesting. Technically, political persuasion is not a “protected class.” At first blush, it would seem like you could discriminate in favor of people in your own political party. However, doing so could cause what’s known as a “disparate impact,” - an unintentional but nonetheless discriminatory practice – if the unintended result ends up discriminating against people of a certain race, ethnicity, gender, age, or other protected status.
In addition, states like Colorado have laws that protect off-duty legal activity, frequently known as “Smoker’s Rights” laws. It’s entirely legal for employees to participate in the political process, even if their views are different from yours. Except in cases of a true conflict of interest, you cannot take adverse action against an applicant or employee for something that they do outside of work that is legal, including being in a different political party from you. For most employers, political behavior outside of work won’t be a conflict of interest for their team members.
On a broader note, savvy leaders often find that some of their best employees are polar opposites from themselves on many fronts. Employees should be judged on how well they do their job, and how well they live the values and norms that make your organization who it is; not by how similar their political or personal beliefs are to yours. When you employ and value employees who are not just like you, you may find your limitations, weaknesses, and blind spots covered by employees who have corresponding strengths.
As annoying as all the mudslinging is right about now – especially next month when we’ll be trying to watch the Olympics around half a bazillion political attack ads – the workplace doesn’t have to get annoying. Stay true to who you are as an organization and hang in there. It will be November 9th before you know it.