In today’s particularly contentious and polarized political climate, even casual “water cooler” conversations can become heated and disruptive debates. What is a business owner to do?
Most effective is to focus on political discussions as distractions to productivity and the company’s culture. Communicate expectations clearly, and enforce related policies even-handedly. For example, if you have a broad no-solicitation policy, that is easier to extend to political contributions. If message tee shirts are already considered inappropriate office dress, then those promoting a candidate or campaign are automatically banned. If the standard of conduct for office interactions has always been one of consideration and respect, that should be upheld.
Assuming that you already have policies in place that ban discrimination and harassment, be sure that you are not open to claims that a supervisor is biased based on his/her comments about the age, race, religion or gender of a candidate, or that an employee is being bullied due to different views than the majority of your workers. Imagine a scenario where one of your supervisor states that neither of the presidential candidates should be running because they are too old. A couple of weeks later, one of the workers in his/her department legitimately needs to be let go, but just happens to be over age 55. How do you think that worker and colleagues will react? Regardless of how strongly you or your supervisors support a candidate or an issue, it is important that all in managerial roles remain politically neutral in the workplace.
You do have the right to limit political speech in your company, as long as it does not specifically relate to labor or working condition issues. However, tread carefully. If you focus on improving the process of the interactions, you may find opportunities to teach about business diplomacy, conflict resolution, and active listening. Simply banning the content will most likely just move the discussion to your parking lot or to social media, where you cannot mitigate any harmful consequences.
Restricting use of office equipment to disseminate political messages or solicit contributions is also recommended. (In fact, you must forbid this, if you have a 501 (C) (3) organization.) It may seem a minor bit of generosity to allow an employee to use your copy machine after hours to replicate a few dozen flyers for their chosen candidate. However, use of company resources, such as phones, computers, email addresses, customer lists, or copy machines by an employee to participate in a political campaign can lead to charges that the company is making unreported illegal, in-kind contributions.
You do not need to lose control of your company in the months leading to an election. However, you do need to carefully balance what you will and will not allow and enforce those uniformly.
As always, the goal of Duncan Resources is to educate and empower owners of small businesses. For more help or a free presentation to a group about this or other topics of interest, call us! Check out more articles archived here.