Social Media Employment Law

When Political Discourse “Trumps” Workplace Rules

You thought Donald Trump was all over the place before. The golf courses, beauty pageants and reality shows paled in comparison to what we have seen and heard in 2015. Jumping into the ring of this election cycle’s Presidential heavyweight fight, Trump has made news the past few weeks with his views on Mexico and immigration. And it’s not just Trump. More than a dozen other candidates on all sides of the aisle are taking highly-charged, often 10-second sound bite positions on issues from religion to veterans to social security to abortion to gay marriage. So what happens when political discussion and activity infiltrates your company’s workplace?     

It is easy to laugh off your employees’ debate at the water cooler (the physical and virtual) about the new timed approach to last night’s major league baseball home run derby. It is far more likely that emotion and judgments will run deeper and last longer when it comes to the issues blowing in the political winds. Social media has played a big part here too, as employees have greater access to information and a larger forum in which to debate and engage in political expression. Discussion within the four walls of the physical office easily spills into the posts and videos of social media.

Political-related debate among employees certainly has the potential of reducing productivity as much as any endless banter on sports would. But, more critically, it also serves to harbor bias and resentment that could lead to harassment and discrimination claims by your employees. There is no obligation to be George Orwellian to monitor everything, everywhere, but your company should be sensitive to the notion that workplace harassment claims on issues involving religion and national origin, for example, have seen a dramatic uptick in just the past couple of years. Workplace policies on harassment, discrimination and retaliation must apply even to discussions that may have stemmed at some earlier point from political reporting, and may apply even to discussions on social media, if they lead to some protected class impact or have the effect of interfering with your employee’s ability to perform his or her job.

On the other hand, many states have laws that protect those who engage in lawful activities, including certain types of political activity.  I’ve said it before here, and I’ll continue to say it:  Employers are not always prohibited from making employment-related decisions based on the right to control their workplace.  But, they should be cautious about making trigger-happy decisions without at least considering the issues and potential ramifications involved with those decisions.  This year’s intensified political climate is no different, even if it seems so easy for Trump to say on TV: “you’re fired.”

Employer Take Away:   What should you as an employer take away from this development?   

Don’t ignore the impact that a political election has on the workplace and the relations between employer and employee, and between employee and employee. Saturday Night Live never has, and your company should not either. The biggest issues in the workplace tend to be those issues that are discussed in the workplace at the moment. And in this big election year, politics and all things related are what your employees are talking about. 

Communication and training are always important for any workplace, big or small, to alleviate the potential bias and resentment that come from certain discourse. HR training tends to occur at holiday time at the end of the year (and don’t worry, we’ll get back to the holiday parties in five months). But there may be times, like an active political season, where it may make sense to re-affirm your company’s stance on making sure that the workplace allows free thought and expression for work performance, but is also free of cultural insensitivity and bias.

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