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Political Discussion at Work: How to Handle Politics in an Election Year

Political discussions in the workplace can become especially heated during an election year and cause tensions that are not healthy for employees or for the success of the business. Is there anything an employer can do to prevent political discussions from interfering with teamwork, productivity and customer relations?

The solution becomes clearer when we turn the question around. What can an employer do when teamwork, productivity, and customer relations are affected by political discussions? Now the issue is not about beliefs—who is right, who is wrong—but about employees fulfilling their responsibilities. Whether a discussion centers on football teams or same-sex marriages, when it interferes with an employee’s ability to do his or her job, it falls under the guidelines set up by the employee’s job description and company policies on work performance.

Employers must be careful not to allow their political beliefs to dictate their own attitudes and behaviors; for example, by giving a poor performance review to someone who votes for a different party. Federal and state laws may restrict an employer’s ability to persuade employees to vote for or against a specific candidate or issue. In addition, while employers may have a dress code that prohibits wearing campaign buttons or a policy against posting political flyers in shared spaces, certain political activities are protected, including running for office, having a bumper sticker on a private car or wearing a union badge.

A CareerBuilder survey found that 36 percent of workers discuss politics at work, while 46 percent stated that they plan to discuss the presidential election with their co-workers. About 23 percent said such discussions have led to a heated work exchange or fight with a work colleague. When political views are persistently expressed even though others have made it clear that those views are unwelcome, then the person expressing those views may be creating an atmosphere of harassment. The employer’s response should fall under the company’s policy for dealing with harrassment.

In general, I recommend creating a culture where tolerance, respect and sheer good manners are held in high esteem. Under those circumstances, political discussions at work should resolve themselves far short of the time when employers need to intervene.

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