Red Hot and Blue: Controlling Political Talk at Work

The following is an article we posted four years ago which was subsequently reprinted in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  It seems appropriate to republish it today, but with a few updated details to reflect current circumstances.

As our presidential thrill ride reaches new heights (or perhaps depths?) many of us have reached our breaking point on election coverage and political talk.

While we can turn off the television and dodge political talk at (properly distanced) social gatherings, it’s different at work. Employees often cannot leave their workstations to escape a heated political debate or a co-worker who is deridin’ Biden or wants to dump on Trump to a captive audience.

What might seem like simple shop talk can quickly escalate into an unlawfully hostile or harassing work environment under applicable discrimination laws.  Employers therefore should develop a plan to intervene effectively when political talk oversteps the limits of ordinary workplace give-and-take.

What’s at Stake?

Political talk distracts employees, but probably not more than other routine debates such as Vikings v. Packers or who makes the best Juicy Lucy.  Ordinary workplace rules designed to limit workplace distractions should be sufficient for this issue.

The bigger concern is that the current political spotlight shines brightly on hot-button issues of race, religion and ethnicity, which are all protected characteristics under Federal and Minnesota discrimination laws. Offending remarks on these topics, if sufficiently severe and frequent, can trigger legal protections even when intent to offend is absent.

Consider how foreign-born employees might take offense when a co-worker echoes a candidate’s call for a ban on immigration. Those who side with law enforcement after controversial police shootings may feel bullied when co-workers brand them as racists.  A workplace debate on transgender issues could spur both sides to seek redress, with one employee claiming sexual orientation harassment and the other feeling attacked because of religion or creed (a separate but still undefined set of religious beliefs protected by the discrimination laws of a handful of states, including Minnesota).

The risk posed by political talk is even greater when a supervisor or manager is involved. A Muslim employee receiving a warning or demotion shortly after opposing a supervisor’s pronouncements on terrorism might perceive retaliation even if those decisions are otherwise well-deserved. Perceptions of the supervisor’s objectivity going forward may now be compromised.

If political discussions devolve into violence, Minnesota courts recognize claims for negligent retention, which holds employers liable for failing to terminate an employee whom they knew posed a risk of physical harm to others.

No Mute Buttons at Work

Despite the risks, banning all political talk is probably not the answer.  For one thing, it prevents respectful discussions among co-workers that might bridge differences, build teamwork and invigorate the workplace. In addition, public employers are prohibited from enacting rules that unnecessarily impede their employees from exercising their First Amendment right of free speech.

Private sector employers are not constrained by the Constitution but must observe the National Labor Relations Act, which protects employees’ right to engage in “concerted activities” for their mutual aid and benefit. This might not cover all political topics but it certainly could apply to discussions regarding critical campaign issues such as jobs, wages, health care and any other subject that touches on the workplace.

Employer Sets the Rules

While “blanket” policies banning all speech may not be the answer, employers definitely may regulate offensive or harmful speech in their workplace. Courts recognize that a public employer’s need for efficiency and a disruption-free work environment normally outweigh free speech interests. In both the private and public sectors, discrimination laws demand that employees be protected from harassment motivated by race, religion and other statutorily-designated characteristics.

Employers should consider issuing a pronouncement that all employees are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of political affiliations or beliefs. Tell employees that they are free to engage in reasonable discussions of political issues but also will be supported if they choose not to participate. It might also help to remind them that working time is for work and that political discussions should be largely be confined to breaks and meal periods.

Employers should be certain that their policies on harassment and workplace behavior adequately address issues that might arise if political talk gets out of hand. Consider reissuing the policy or otherwise bringing it to the employees’ attention in an appropriate manner.

Supervisors and managers should be directed not to participate in any political conversations and to monitor such discussions among co-workers.  If the discussion is becoming confrontational or begins to touch on discrimination issues, the supervisor should intervene and re-direct the dialogue.

Finally, if an employee complains that political talk has crossed the line into harassment, do not ignore or minimize the complaint. Follow your harassment policy which presumably calls for an investigation and appropriate corrective action if a violation is found.

Bottom Line

It is tempting to think that election day will bring relief from our discordant political climate but recent history and current political events suggest otherwise. Employers should therefore continue monitoring and controlling political talk at work to ensure that ordinary and reasonable conversations do not escalate into serious workplace conflict.