Should Politics Be a Taboo Subject in Your Workplace?

By Thomas R. Crookes

The current political environment across the United States is ripe with the potential to breed heated workplace discussions and differences of opinion, and not just because of the 2016 Presidential election campaign gaining a foothold in the daily news and social media.

From racially charged incidents and protests to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision over marriage equality, to the debate about the raising of the minimum wage, to name only a few trigger points, we’re facing many high-profile events that wind up being political because they have socioeconomic, racial or ideological foundations.

And, people want to talk about them — not just at home or with friends, but around the office water cooler or in the lunchroom.

As the Presidential campaign escalates, and the Republican National Convention kicks off in downtown Cleveland next summer, chances are workplaces across the country will wind up being hotbeds of political debate and speculation, whether businesses want this to occur or not.

Should politics be a taboo subject at work?

This likely leaves employers wondering if such discussions should be considered taboo during work hours. If you’re in that camp, you might want to rethink your stance.

While many business etiquette advisors will say that such discussions are a big “no-no” on the clock, political discussions at the office, for a number of reasons, cannot be completely banned across the board, thanks to many provisions of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which protects various types of discussions among employees.

A blanket policy against political discussions, particularly ones focused on wage/hour debates and other topics covered by the NLRA, could be construed as “protected, concerted activity” by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency that oversees enforcement of these regulations.

Enacting a policy that says, “Thou shalt not talk about political issues in the workplace,” puts your company at risk for NLRB scrutiny. In fact, if someone complains, and the NLRB launches an investigation, it ultimately might view your policy as too broad and determine that it’s unlawful.

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So, rather than banning discussion entirely, businesses instead should carefully review and strengthen their harassment policies and educate workers about them.

Creating a less-restrictive atmosphere

A well-drafted and effective harassment policy should cover what constitutes unlawful or harassing conduct. And employees should be trained that if someone says to stop a discussion because it makes the employee uncomfortable, the discussion should stop.

If it doesn’t, depending on the nature of the conversation and the issues that arise out of it, the employee leading the conversation could run the risk of unlawful harassment, and the employer may shoulder this liability.

With this in mind, it’s best to create a less restrictive atmosphere where political discussions can fall into the realm of other water cooler topics, such as television shows, sporting events, movies or how someone spent his or her weekend. While not the standard espoused by the NLRB, a productive workplace is one where workers work together and their communication, language and behavior is based on common courtesy and mutual respect.

While businesses can’t lawfully eliminate political chatter in the workplace, particularly with the 2016 Presidential election gaining momentum and attention, basic policies and guidelines will allow employees to engage in respectful and appropriate discourse, should they choose to break from traditional business etiquette, and enter into a lively break room debate.

Thomas Crookes is a partner in the Vorys Akron office and a member of the labor and employment group. He represents employers with a variety of labor and employment law matters, including federal and state employment discrimination litigation, defense of administrative charges, union election campaigns, collective bargaining, non-competition litigation, civil rights actions, wage and hour disputes, and workplace safety matters. Contact him at trcrookes@vorys.com.

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