30 Jun Advice to Employers About Workplace Political Discussions
The last week has seen a number of controversial opinions handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States. To say that emotions are likely running high on a number of issues would be an understatement. It is likely that many of your employees may have a desire to speak publicly about their thoughts, reactions, and beliefs. These employees may be very emotional and may express those emotions at the workplace.
Some may seek to ask you as a business owner to take a public stance on an issue, whether it be gun control, abortion, prayer in school, or something else. I cannot speak to whether you should take a public stance, but you as an employer should consider some items for internal policy on the following subjects:
Discrimination and Harassment
First, there is a potential with the abortion issue in particular for a discriminatory atmosphere to develop. As most of us know, the pro-life movement is strongly connected to some religions, particularly the Catholic Church and many evangelical Christian faiths. Other faith communities have also had a strong affiliation with the pro-life movement.
As a reminder, religion is one of the “big five” protected classes protected by federal, state, and local laws. I strongly encourage all employers to take this opportunity to reinforce that discrimination and harassment based on religion (yes, even Christian faiths) is just as improper and illegal as discrimination based on race, national origin, sex (including sexual orientation and gender), or color.
Be on the lookout for shunning behavior (certain employees suddenly being isolated by others), statements or activity that belittle religious beliefs, or statements that attack religious faiths or beliefs. Remind employees, that unlike someone’s race, color, or sex, religion is not always obvious and often private in nature, but nonetheless important to a person. Statements that many people might not find offensive may be deeply offensive to adherents of different religions.
Remember, employers have an obligation to maintain a workplace free of discrimination. If you believe discrimination is taking place or you receive a complaint about religious discrimination, you have an affirmative obligation under the law to investigate the complaint, and if necessary discipline employees who violate the anti-discrimination policies. In the area of religious discrimination, I strongly suggest you contact legal counsel to help with any kind of investigation.
Social Media Policies
I strongly encourage you to reiterate your social media policy, specifically reinforcing the notion that only certain people, usually the owner, can make a public statement on behalf of the company. If your employees engage on social media and their social media profile is connected to the company (i.e. person works at X company), please reiterate that they should place a disclaimer saying that they do not speak for the company.
Many large public employers have made statements stating that they will financially support those seeking an abortion. While you certainly have a right to make such a declaration, be mindful that such statements may result in claims of discrimination and harassment in the future.
Other Conduct by Employees
Employees may wish to discuss these issues amongst themselves. There may be an impetus by employers to ban such subjects. But so long as employees can remain civil, respectful, and keep such conversations private, I generally don’t recommend any kind of censorship or bans on topics.
However, you can tell employees that they cannot discuss politics or these matters while on the clock. During the time they are being compensated for their work, their attention should be on their duties, not the political realm. Employees can have conversations in the break rooms or outside well away from customers. But if conversations get heated (and they have a tendency to do so on these subjects) it is reasonable to separate employees and then ban conversations in the workplace, even if the employees are off duty.
You can and should instruct employees to not discuss these heated topics with customers, vendors, suppliers, or anyone else doing business with your company. You cannot predict how people will react and your customers are your livelihood. If you make a public statement about an issue, you should tell employees to direct any inquiries or complaints directly to you. Employees may want to express their displeasure with your position, but that displeasure cannot be shared with customers or others outside the company.
If anyone needs help with drafting specific policy statements for employees, please reach out to us or schedule a time at MatttheLawyer Calendar Tool.