Keep Politics Out of the Workplace

Constant political bickering among your crew reduces productivity, leads to hard feelings and could cost you customers if you don’t get it under control

Keep Politics Out of the Workplace

A few months ago, we lived through another bitter and partisan election cycle. The nasty attack ads blanketing the airwaves, the 24-hour cable news channel squawkers, the rhetoric of the candidates themselves — it all contributed toward the divisiveness of the world we live in.

No matter what side of the aisle you’re on, personal political bickering has probably taken a toll on your daily life. Maybe you have gone a little too far with a neighbor you disagree with. Or there is no longer much amiable family conversation around the Thanksgiving dinner table because everyone is in fear of offending a relative.

You’d like to think that once the political fever of the election season dies down, we can all return to the way it used to be … so many years ago. If you are old enough, you may remember a time when politics was more of a patriotic duty than the all-consuming blood sport it seems to be today.

You learned about the candidates and wanted to make an informed choice. But the political talk pretty much ended after Election Day, and then everyone tried their best to get along and support whoever was in office. Folks thought that was best for the country.

A waste of time

While I don’t understand it, I recognize that those days are gone. And even now, after the congressional races have been run, people are still constantly arguing about politics. The heat never seems to simmer down. If that’s how people want to spend their personal time, God bless ’em. But what happens when the line blurs between personal time and the workday? What rules should employees and employers follow so everyone can continue to get along and work well as a team? How do we ensure that politics don’t get in the way of productivity in our workplaces?

Some of you may disagree, but I think generally it’s best to avoid mixing work and politics. What good can come from your technicians, your supervisors or you sparring over the actions of one political party or another? And maybe even more important, can you imagine a positive outcome when someone on your team shares strong political views with your customers?

I believe it will always be one of the most important rules for running a small business: Don’t broadcast your political views unless you want to offend about half of your potential customers. And this rule should probably extend to interactions with your team and between your employees.

Time wasted on politics in the office or shop will take away focus on your main mission of solving your customers’ wastewater issues. It will also distract you and your crew’s concentration on working safely and getting along together. I’m not saying folks should be any less passionate about their beliefs on issues they find important. Just follow that passion only when you’re not clocked in at work and only when it doesn’t hurt the company you work for.

As we head into 2019, we can hope more people just want to come together and leave the political bickering behind. But by now we know that isn’t going to happen. So here are some suggestions to come closer to achieving a politics-free environment at work this year:

Create a policy outlining the limits of politics at work. The first thing to know is that private employers may establish a policy limiting political discussions or promoting a political candidate at work. There is no First Amendment protection for workers while they are on the job. However, there is one caveat: Through the National Labor Relations Act, employees are guaranteed the right to discuss working conditions and union organization. Those may include talk of health care or fair wage provisions, for example. 

But you may be surprised to learn that a quarter of employers in a Society for Human Resource Management survey report having a written policy curtailing political discussions at work. Further, 20 percent report having unwritten rules prohibiting politics at work and 5 percent report disciplining workers for breaking those rules. In another survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, 72 percent of employer respondents report they discourage political talk at work. 

So what can go into such a policy? You may establish a dress code that prohibits wearing T-shirts, political buttons or caps that support a candidate or issue outside the scope of the National Labor Relations Act protections. You can forbid workers from handing out political literature at work. You can prevent workers from engaging in political arguments on the job, both with fellow employees and — especially — with customers in the field. 

According to many human resources experts, the key to a successful politics-free workplace policy is consistent enforcement. You must hold everyone on your team to the same standard, even if the majority agree politically, including front-line workers, managers and company owners. And that leads to point No. 2. 

Don’t ask employees to support a candidate or party. While it is not strictly prohibited with all of your workers, it may be in the best interest of your company’s productivity to avoid asking any employees to support a particular candidate or issue. Citing federal law, the online human resources site www.hrsimple.com reports employers can ask certain managerial or supervisory employees to vote for or against a candidate. But those protections do not apply to state elections or to front-line, nonexempt workers.

Further, election laws prohibit anyone from forcing another person to refrain from registering to vote, contribute to any particular candidate or political party, or sign or refrain from signing a petition.

All that being said, it seems best for employers to avoid sharing their own political views or encouraging any workers to vote one way or the other. Aside from potential violations, put yourself in your employees’ shoes. Would you want anyone suggesting how you should vote in an election? Especially the person who signs your paycheck?

Refocus on customers. As the company owner, you are always looking to improve efficiency and reduce wasted time. According to two recent surveys by the American Psychological Association, U.S. workers report their job performance declined when politics was brought into the workplace. While they often shared the same views as co-workers, many respondents say political talk raises tension on the job. About half of workers surveyed say they try to avoid talking politics at work and 20 percent say they avoid some co-workers because of political disagreements.

Stress to your crew that job No. 1 is providing quality service to customers, and anything that takes you further from reaching that goal is to be discouraged. That includes bringing a soapbox to work and holding a political rally in the lunchroom.



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