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Clear policy, clearly communicated can avoid confrontations

As we approach November mid-term elections, heated political discussions in the workplace may be difficult to avoid, if you do not have a clear policy in place.  On a daily basis, via the Internet, social networking and traditional media channels, we are confronted with examples of everyday citizens freely voicing their opinions more than ever before.

Political discussions have long been considered inappropriate in the workplace; however, that could be changing. A study by the American Management Association, published prior to the last presidential election, found employees have mixed feelings about sharing political views in the workplace.

Of those surveyed, 39 percent said they are comfortable discussing their political views with colleagues, while 35 percent said they are uncomfortable, and 25 percent of respondents said they were neutral on the issue.

The discussion of politics in the workplace can vary greatly from company to company. Many employers have found that casual political conversations in the office are not completely off limits, as long as the discussions remain calm and everyone’s views are respected.

Employers or managers should not request information about an employee's political affiliation or the way they voted, nor can they threaten employees, fire them or take disciplinary action against employees because they exercise their right to vote or because of the way the employees voted. Public employers must pay close attention to First Amendment protections that may apply to employee speech.

When it comes to campaigning for a particular candidate, the law does not generally prohibit companies from adopting policies restricting the solicitation and distribution of non-work-related activities in the office, including political campaigning.

Problems tend to arise when employees are unsure about what the policy states they can or cannot do. Employers should make the policy clear and provide regular reminders to employees.  Once a policy is enacted, it should be consistent, and all employees must follow the same guidelines.

Tips for managing political discussions in the workplace include:

Communicate the company policy on political discussions. Clear rules that are understood and accepted by all employees will go a long way toward minimizing disputes.

Train management on how to handle the situation if they observe inappropriate discussions or conduct.  Supervisors should respond quickly by investigating any employee complaints and approach the problem in the same manner as any other potentially negative situation.

Businesses should avoid taking a monolithic stance on a candidate or political party.  Doing so could alienate a customer base and employees who do not share that same view. In most cases, embracing diversity, including political diversity, strengthens the organization; therefore, allowing the development of connections in various political communities can benefit the company.

Wearing or displaying political paraphernalia in the office can have negative implications depending on how the business operates.  If an employee has contact with customers or clients, management might want to consider developing a policy prohibiting political gear. Employees who interact with clients or even third-party vendors are the face of the company and should be careful not to offend others.

No matter the industry, it is likely political discussions will take place in the office at one time or another. Employers must remember to support diversity and inclusion of all views, while at the same time respecting employees’ boundaries and enforcing policies fairly and equally.

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Diana Gregory is a senior HR specialist for Administaff (NYSE:  ASF), the nation’s leading professional employer organization. The company operates 51 sales offices in 24 major markets.  For more information about Administaff, call 800-465-3800 or visit http://www.administaff.com.