Whether in the break room, in a video conference room, or in an online chat... passionate and intense discussions can (and will) arise. While the discussion can be stimulating and provocative, it can also veer into uncomfortable territory. The line between freedom of speech and a hostile work environment is not always distinct.
Even though our First Amendment right to freedom of speech is protected in public companies and municipalities, it is not protected in most private companies unless your employees work in one of the few states where political affiliation is considered a protected class. While a politically diverse discussion among employees can be healthy and informative, when does it become a liability? How can it be managed and measured against one’s constitutional rights to freedom of speech?
Tips for fostering a safe workplace
Regardless of whether your employee’s favorite political hero is red, white, black, or even orange, here are some tips for maintaining a cohesive, safe, and productive work environment for all as we enter into one of the most politically charged time periods of our lifetime:
First and foremost, promote a culture of respect from the top down
Whether an employee resides in a c-suite or the reception desk, beliefs and values are visceral and we are all entitled to them. Encourage respectful exchanges of beliefs without fear or intimidation. An environment where employees are allowed to share without fear of reprisal encourages crucial conversation, which is key to a progressive organization.
Proceed with caution
Know your team. Political discussion can be risky. An employee who is disciplined or terminated may attach the action to an unrelated comment or opinion that has been previously shared in the heat of a political debate, i.e. “I feel targeted and ostracized.” While sharing openly can be the first step to engagement, remember that what you share may not be as important as how you share it.
Know when enough is enough
If you are an environment that encourages respectful debate, remind employees to be cognizant of social cues and know when their colleagues are uncomfortable. As a leader, do not hesitate to redirect any discussion that becomes aggressive, disrespectful, or threatening in any way.
Review your policies for consistency
As we approach election time, reiterate your policies around the use of electronic communications, harassment, cultural sensitivity, and even dress code. While a “Make America Great Again” t-shirt and accessories may be fashion to some, it may send another message to your customers and co-workers who may prefer fashion that can be seen and not read.
Remember your role as an employer
You have a responsibility to provide a safe, comfortable work environment. The First Amendment does not exempt you from creating guidelines and boundaries for employees with respect to political discussions. Also, you are obligated to mitigate disruptions that impede your organization's progress and that can include such discussions.
A political discussion in the workplace does not have to be politically incorrect when supported by a base of respect, inclusiveness and sensitivity, all of which are characterizations of a progressive organization.
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