The 2008 presidential election is one that has engendered intense passion and interest on the part of the American public. Everywhere you turn, people are talking about the election, and as November 4 approaches, the conversations are more heated than ever before.

The historic circumstances of this year’s election have opened a virtual Pandora’s Box of issues that are particularly challenging for human resources professionals. Most of the topics you would expect to cover in a workplace harassment training course are in play. Gender, age, religion, national origin, and race—all sensitive workplace topics—suddenly seem like fair game in the context of open political debate. As an employer, should you try to limit political discussions in the workplace? The answer is yes. And no.

You may have already noticed that political discussions among your employees are occurring more frequently, lasting longer, and seem more impassioned. Civil political conversations in the workplace can be a healthy thing. Both discussion and debate can help employees get to know one another, reveal common interests, and provide an opportunity to bond. However, if no ground rules are set, political discussions can quickly turn into heated arguments. Employees might feel that the cloak of free political speech gives them license to express inappropriate opinions on sensitive topics that would otherwise be off-limits in the workplace. When supervisors are involved, employees may feel pressured to conform their political beliefs or be discriminated against for not doing so. Even if the debate remains civilized, the mere expression of divergent political views can fan the flames if friction already exists between co-workers or create friction where none existed before.

The unusual interest in this year’s election may also have a marked effect on employee productivity. Aside from the obvious problem of lengthy “water cooler” discussions, there is the Internet to consider. The sheer volume of political e-mails being circulated as we near the election is stunning. Internet news sites and blogs are constantly being updated with new information, polling data, and gossip. Even the campaigns themselves are sending out daily e-mail blasts. Employees with an interest in the election—and let’s face it, that’s just about everyone these days—may be tempted to surf the Net more than ever before. As we near the election, employees will be tempted to spend even more time focused on politics rather than work.

One way to deal with political discourse in the workplace is to ban it entirely. Private employers are not bound by the First Amendment. They can prohibit political speech in the workplace entirely if they so choose. This, however, is probably not a realistic approach to the problem. Employees will certainly discuss politics no matter what prohibitions are placed on those discussions. Human nature does not stop at the office door. The better route is to lay out some ground rules and remind employees that certain topics are off-limits no matter what the context. The age, race, gender, and religious beliefs of the candidates may make for great conversations, but they also present an opportunity for employees to express views that others may find unwelcome or offensive. We all have our opinions about whether the United States is ready to elect a minority president, whether it’s time for the “old guard” to turn the keys to the country over to the next generation, or whether “lipstick on a pig” is code for sexism, but these are not appropriate topics of workplace discussion.

As an employer, how can you deal with the current political climate? Consider taking the following steps to avoid productivity issues and employee-relation problems during this election season:

  • If you have not provided antiharassment training to your employees recently, this is an ideal time to do so. If you have provided training recently, remind your employees that what they learned applies equally to political discussions. In either case, contact your employment law counsel to discuss the best approach.
  • Be consistent, but careful, when it comes to discipline. Let your employees know that you will permit political discussions only if employees continue to be productive and only if the debate is civilized. Do not allow employees who share your views to express them while prohibiting those who do not from doing the same. Do not discipline only those employees who represent one side of the debate. Consider contacting your employment law counsel before imposing political chatter–related discipline.
  • Remind employees of the topics they should avoid discussing in the workplace, and make them understand that these topics are no more acceptable in the context of political debate than in any other context. Let them know that the same prohibitions apply and the same potential for discipline exists.
  • Train supervisors concerning their obligation to foster and maintain a non-hostile working environment. Supervisors should be sensitized to the fact that some employees may seize on current political issues as an opportunity to make offensive comments about race, gender, age, religion, or national origin. If a supervisor overhears employees discussing inappropriate topics in a political context, the supervisor should put a stop to it, just as he or she would in any other context.
  • Consider training supervisors to be careful about expressing their own political views. Employees may feel obligated to agree with them—or fear repercussions if they don’t. Especially in this election season, where gender, age, national origin, and race are quickly finding their way into the thick of the political debate, if an employee and supervisor disagree about politics, it may lay the foundation for a discrimination claim down the line if the employee is later disciplined or terminated.
  • Do not make any employment decisions or base any evaluations on your employees’ political beliefs.
  • Consider prohibiting the use of company e-mail systems to engage in political discussions or forward political e-mails. Aside from the obvious adverse effect that this could have on productivity, e-mail presents unique problems as a forum for debate of any kind. The lack of tone creates an unusually high likelihood that messages will be misunderstood or taken out of context, and people often forward e-mails that they haven’t carefully read. There are a number of e-mails currently circulating that include potentially offensive comments and jokes about the candidates’ personal traits and beliefs. A strict policy against using company resources to circulate any political e-mails can help you avoid repercussions if an employee does decide to forward an offensive e-mail.