A Spirited Political Debate Among Co-Workers Can Escalate into a Claim of Discrimination or Hostile Work Environment

Philadelphia – October 23, 2012 – With the increased volume of political ads and extensive news coverage of the upcoming election, so comes the volume and vociferousness of political conversations. A spirited political debate can escalate into a claim of discrimination or hostile work environment, warns Susan K. Lessack, a partner with Pepper Hamilton LLP.

“Widening ideological gulfs, dissected and fueled by pundits, have made politics seem more like a contact sport than ever,” says Lessack, who concentrates her practice in employment counseling and employment litigation. “While some political activities can be prohibited in the workplace, some actions are protected.”

Because one’s political beliefs are often part of his or her personal identity, almost any political activity at work can become divisive or offensive to someone. When it comes to politics, some people cannot agree to disagree: according to a 2007 Vault Politics in the Workplace Survey, 66 percent of survey respondents said co-workers discussed politics in the workplace; 46 percent had witnessed a political argument between co-workers. As hurt feelings, resentment and anger can potentially decrease worker productivity and raise the workplace temperature, political activity can cause problems at work—between workers, between workers and employers, and even between workers and a company’s visiting customers who may be offended by overhearing the discussions.

“Many people wrongly think the First Amendment entitles them to express their political views whenever and wherever they wish,” says Lessack, “but there is no constitutional right of free speech in a private employer’s workplace, absent contrary state law.”

Recognizing that it would be impractical to ban political discussions at work, Lessack says employers should consider drafting a political discussion policy that minimizes distractions, yet allows a certain amount of respectful political discourse. Managers and supervisors should be advised to not discuss their personal political views with subordinates, and should be trained to recognize that certain types of political speech can lead to a hostile work environment. Restrictions on off-duty political activity should be avoided. Pennsylvania, unlike many other states, does not have an off-duty conduct law, but it is still advisable not to intrude into an employee’s private life unless it affects the workplace.

“Whatever position an employer decides to take on political discussion in the workplace,” says Lessack, “employers should enforce any policies consistently and not be tougher on employees who express political views that are different from the company’s or its managers.”

According to Lessack, a political discussion policy, depending on the workplace and the nature of a company’s business, can include:

  • a statement that employees have the right to vote for the candidates of his or her choice
  • an adaptation of any existing non-solicitation policies to restrict political solicitations during work time
  • reminders that company computers are for company business; prohibit employees from sending political messages on company computer systems
  • restrictions on wearing political clothing or buttons or displaying political messages, if the employees deal directly with customers (to the extent not protected by the National Labor Relations Act)
  • cautions that political talk that creates a hostile work environment will not be tolerated
  • a provision that requests for time off to volunteer on a political campaign or to attend a rally will be considered and granted neutrally, the same way as any other request for time off for any other reason
  • a statement that an employee’s political views should not influence his or her performance reviews or eligibility for promotion.

Listen to a podcast with Ms. Lessack on "Politics in the Workplace."