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Politics and the water cooler

Thursday October 16, 2008

Many employers tolerate casual office conversations about politics, but they walk a fine line between ensuring everyone’s view is respected and being mindful of First Amendment protections. Political expression in the workplace should have limits. For instance, managers should not ask employees about their party affiliation or the way they voted in a particular race, and workers cannot be threatened, disciplined or fired for exercising their right to vote.

To keep the peace and avoid the potential for problems, businesses should establish policies for coping with employees’ at-work political activities. And once this policy is in force, it should be carried out consistently.

Here are some tips for managing political discussions in the workplace:

-    Establish a clear policy outlining what political activities are permitted and then communicate the rules to all employees. Previous court rulings generally allow employers to prohibit campaigning or the distribution of political materials in the office. Set guidelines and let employees know if it is acceptable to conduct activities such as circulating petitions or raising funds for a candidate.
-    Political discussions should not disrupt normal business operations. Consider limiting political talk to the lunch hour and other work breaks.
-    Employees should be expected to respect colleagues’ views and never attack a person’s political affiliation or belief.
-    Quickly investigate any complaints, focusing only on the involved employee’s workplace behavior and not on the political opinions being expressed.
-    Consider banning political gear in public spaces and for employees who have contact with clients and vendors.
-    Do not assume that employees who support the same candidate share the same feelings on all the issues. There are many volatile issues being discussed this election season and people often do not agree with a party’s overall platform.
-    Avoid taking an official stance on a particular candidate or political issue. Doing so could alienate customers or employees who do not share a similar ideology.

As the presidential campaign marches toward the November 4 general election, political discussions will occur with more frequency at work. As with issues of religion and creed, employers should remember to create a balance between supporting diversity while respecting employees and fairly enforcing company policies.

Jennifer Stone is a senior client liaison for Administaff in Atlanta. Administaff is a professional employer organization (PEO), serving as a full-service human resources department for small and medium-sized businesses. For more information about Administaff, call 800-465-3800 or visit www.administaff.com.

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