In a year where political rhetoric has included name calling, jeers, and physical threats – and all of these coming directly from the candidates themselves – what can employers do to manage workplace discussions about political issues before those discussions become disruptive?

A nationwide survey conducted by CareerBuilder and Harris Poll ahead of the 2012 election showed that nearly a quarter of the 7700 workers surveyed reported that they had been involved in a “heated discussion or fight” with a co-worker, boss, or someone else “higher up in the organization.” According to that same poll, 10% of the workers surveyed said that their opinions of a co-worker changed for the negative after discovering that person’s political preferences.

Employers are caught in the Catch-22 of attempting to reinforce civil behavior – and possibly risking an NLRB charge in the process (see William Beaumont Hospital)and allowing individuals to express their own thoughts and beliefs without implementing restrictions on the discourse, even if argument ensues.

Knowledgeable employers can find a middle ground by doing three things:

  • Understanding the line between argumentative workplace discussions and the “concerted protected activity” protected under the National Labor Relations Act;
  • Training managers to recognize potentially problematic discussions and teaching them how to de-escalate those discussions; and
  • Consistently enforcing company policies related to violence.

The NLRA allows employees to discuss the terms and conditions of employment without interference by the company, even if that discussion includes some negative comments and criticisms. But the rules governing workplace violence and unsafe behavior continue to apply to employee interactions to keep even protected discussion from escalating into physical confrontation and violence.

Harassment and anti-violence policies must be posted, disseminated, and consistently enforced. Assure that managers are aware of and conversant in those policies, are able to recognize the difference between basic conversation and a more heated, argumentative exchange, and can take effective and prompt action to de-escalate those second types of situation.

Additionally, discussions of the “terms and conditions of employment” protected under the NLRA are unlikely to include individual political beliefs, so some parameters can be instituted around such discussions. Boundaries can be set to preclude posting political signs or holding political rallies during work hours. Employers can support the civic involvement of employees without allowing the workplace to be disrupted by non-work-related events and discussion.

The key in the coming months will be to pay attention and to enforce workplace policies with a focus on work performance, and not individual political beliefs.


Photos from Nacho Libre, 2006, Paramount Pictures, starring Jack Black and Hector Jimenez.