Jessica L. Caruthers, Attorney at Law

 
Do you know what your employees are discussing in the lunchroom? On breaks? By the copy machine?
 
Chances are probably good that from time to time, they’re discussing politics.
 
Whether they like or dislike a particular senator, governor, city council member, or even a piece of legislation, the likelihood that someone has a contrary opinion is probably high.
 
Truth is, when it come sot politics, we can all agree that (1) people disagree, (2) people are passionate, and (3) political opinions and passions, with few exceptions, have absolutely nothing to do with work.
 
Harmless political banter is one thing. It becomes a problem for employers and managers when conversations become tainted with racial, sexual, religious, or national origin preferences. Or – more importantly – when other employees perceive the conversations as prejudicial. Workplace talk can become illegal when it includes discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that are sufficiently severe or pervasive, such that they alter the conditions of an individual’s employment. If this occurs, the political talk creates a hostile work environment, which may violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Other federal, state, and local non-discrimination laws may apply as well. Violations of the law could subject an employer to thousands of dollars in damages, penalties, legal fees, and court costs.
 
Politics – and related controversial issues like abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia, foreign policy, taxes, religion, immigration, and healthcare reform to name a few – are likely to lead to strong feelings, debate, and frustration. When office conversations cross the line into commentary about protected classes and characteristics, like race or national origin, they can quickly turn into “harassment.” Remember also that a hostile work environment, or one where employees feel harassed, also harms teamwork, morale, and productivity – and likely your bottom line.
 
What’s an employer to do? The easiest is to use good judgment when hiring employees – choose those who demonstrate good decision-making, professionalism, and discretion. Investigate all complaints of “harassment” or conversations regarding protected classes. Recognize the value of a diverse workplace. Train your employees to know and understand when political expression, or any type of expression, crosses the line to unacceptable. Encourage everyone, but especially your supervisors and managers, to refrain from engaging in questionable political discussions during work hours.
 
Finally, consider adopting an office policy regarding political expression. You’ll want to ensure you don’t cross the line into regulating your employees’ free speech rights, especially if you work in the public sector. You may want to consider, for example, prohibiting political expression using workplace technology or prohibiting political campaigning during work hours. As always, you should consult an attorney to help you craft office policies that properly balance your business interests with the rights of your employees.
 
For additional information, contact attorney Jessica L. Caruthers of Outhier & Caruthers, PLLC, at 580-234-6300 or jcaruthers@enidoklawyers.com.

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