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Divisive Debate

by Lori Armstrong Halber and Rick Grimaldi
Donald Trump may or may not be your cup of tea. Maybe you feel the “Bern,” maybe you don’t. Regardless, there is no shortage of opinions when it comes to politics; particularly this campaign season, which seems louder and more caustic than ever before.

The old adage is that one should never discuss politics and religion at the dinner table. Well, what about the lunch table—at work? Stand around the coffee machine or water cooler these days and this presidential race invariably comes up. Many offices have TVs where CNN or FOX stream live updates and commentary non-stop.

Todd Frederickson of the national employment law firm Fisher & Phillips recently suggested to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), “Social media and the 24-hour news cycle keep controversial matters constantly in the public dialogue.” However, as CEO of the human resources management firm CAI Bruce Clarke warns, even seemingly innocuous conversations can morph into something far more heated and politically loaded. For example, the topic of religion is inextricably intertwined when discussing the “evangelical vote.” People have strong feelings about the candidates and it is very easy to offend a co-worker, even innocently, when engaging in a political discussion.

But, should employers ban such talk in the workplace? No, say most of the experts on the subject, even in a year as volatile as this. It is a common misconception that the First Amendment right to free speech applies to all speech in all places. Technically, a private employer could ban all political speech in the workplace and not run afoul of the Constitution. While in many instances employees should think twice about engaging in political discussions—an ounce of common sense is helpful—an outright ban on political speech is just not practical and the impact of such a ban on employee morale would likely be incalculable.

Any employer must strike a balance with workable policies and practices that encourage discourse while demanding civility; something lost in the current political climate. “The key to talking politics with colleagues is doing so without passing judgment or letting emotions carry away,” says Sandra Spataro, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale University’s School of Management. According to Spataro, managers have a responsibility to “remind people that there are standards of professionalism and common courtesy.”

Policies should recognize the intrinsic value of dialogue while making clear that workers must treat each other with respect and dignity. Employee handbooks that dictate any form of harassment or retaliation will not be tolerated should be the norm. Such handbooks should include statements recognizing that diversity of opinion and tolerance are expected. It is unlikely an employee will be successful in changing a co-worker’s mind when it comes to politics; it is, therefore, more important to gauge one’s own reaction and agree to disagree while having a spirited debate. Finally, any policy should make clear that any political discussions in the workplace cannot interfere with an employee’s job duties, a co-workers job duties or the employer’s business.

Again, have strong policies, train your employees regularly (preferably annually) and enforce the policies consistently. Make sure that human resources gets involved and those employees who get carried away are spoken with and made to understand that they need to tone down their rhetoric. After all, as entertaining as the television debates have been, much of tenor and tone has no place in the office or on the manufacturing floor. Leave it to those who want to run our country, to run their mouths.

Published (and copyrighted) in Philly Biz, Volume 1, Issue 4 (March, 2016).
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