Small business owners have the right to limit political conversations in the workplaceBy Joyce M. Rosenberg, AP
Thursday, September 23, 2010
Dealing with political discussion in the workplace
NEW YORK — With elections weeks away, politics may become as popular a topic as football at small businesses across the country.
Staffers can find it very tempting to join a political discussion. But such conversations can lead to two problems: a loss of productivity, and possible arguments between staffers who have passionate but differing beliefs.
Even if there isn’t a lot of chatter right now disrupting the work day, Alecia Latimer, associate general counsel with AlphaStaff, says owners should consider letting staffers know they can’t spend company time debating who’s a better candidate or who’s likely to win.
CREATE A POLICY
The best way to put staffers on notice about any expectations you have of them, whether it has to do with political conversations or lateness or dress codes, is to create a policy and put it in writing.
Latimer recommends an e-mail to all staffers or a memo posted on lunchroom bulletin board that states: “In these political times, we respect everyone’s views and opinions and we encourage everyone to have these views. However, we would ask that these conversations be held outside of the workplace. Let’s focus on our work.”
If a discussion starts, then it’s time to step in and remind everyone of the policy, and the fact that there’s work to be done. Of course, you may have a similar situation on a Monday morning when workers are still riled up about Sunday’s football games and work seems secondary. In either case, it’s within your rights to have the conversation end.
If employees can’t follow the rules, then you need to treat it as a disciplinary matter.
Let’s say you haven’t formulated a policy, and two staffers get into a nasty argument with a lot of name-calling. At that point, you’re dealing with inappropriate behavior that isn’t allowed under any circumstances. The fact that it happened to be an argument about politics doesn’t matter, Latimer said.
A caveat: Find out if political activity or conversations in the workplace are protected under your state’s laws. If they are, you need to be sure you’re not violating those laws when you ban political conversations. It’s a good idea to check with a labor lawyer or human resources consultant.
DESK DECOR OR POLITICAL ADS? AND WHAT ABOUT CONTRIBUTIONS?
What if workers want to decorate their work stations or cubicles with posters, bumper stickers or other campaign paraphernalia? Latimer says owners have the right to limit or prohibit such items on company property.
But if a worker has his or her photo taken with a politician and wants to display it, that probably falls under the category of personal items and should be allowed, she said.
Some workers might want to solicit contributions for a campaign. It’s also within an owner’s right to prohibit such activities. But Latimer noted that to be fair, owners would also have to ban staffers selling Girl Scout cookies or candy for school fund-raising drives. And they’d also have to say no to staffers seeking sponsorships for charitable organizations’ 10K runs or walkathons.