Office politics

Talking politics in the office: What’s OK and what’s not?

A couple weeks ago at the Culturati Summit here in Austin, I attended a panel that grappled with policies addressing politics in the workplace. Not office politics, but rather questions about wearing political gear at the office, the appropriateness of expressing political opinions on personal social media accounts, debating with colleagues or holding a town hall to discuss an upcoming election.

The crux of the discussion was whether encouraging freedom of speech and political dialogue in the office outweighed its potential for creating a politically pressured environment.

The panel’s moderator, Peter Zandan—global vice chairman at Hill+Knowlton Strategies—took an informal poll of the audience to gauge, by show of hands, how many attendees were employed by companies that have explicit policies on political expression in the office. Most kept their hands down.

Interestingly, however, Zandan also asked if attendees knew the political stance of their CEOs, to which an overwhelming majority said they did.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as a leader’s personal values are tied to the company’s values in ways that make sense, says Caroline Valentine, president and founder of Austin-based Valentine HR.

“When you enter into a conversation about personal values, oftentimes you have to revert to what the company has established as its key values,” she said. “The issue is when a leader has an opinion on a political decision or candidate and ties it back to a personal belief system that isn’t related to the values of the organization. That’s how you alienate employees.”

Can your employer discriminate against you because of your political beliefs or your political activities outside of work? Each state actually has different laws, and some even allow employers to display favoritism; for instance, a private employer can fire an employee for putting a political bumper sticker on his or her car.

While displaying favoritism based on political beliefs may be legal in some states, the potential costs far outweigh the benefit of doing so.

Another area of contention was policies around social media accounts. What if your head of sales posts something negative about a politician, more employees follow suit and, next thing you know, customers and vendors are offended and are less inclined to do business with your company?

This is actually a more prevalent issue than the alienation of employees at work, Valentine said.

“The biggest issue we’re seeing isn’t alienation, it’s more about brand perception from a customer and client perspective,” she said. “I see more issues around company leaders expressing some fear about their brand being negatively impacted because of something an employee said or did outside of the workplace.”

Are there basic rules that need to be in place around these hypotheticals to prevent damage to the business? How can a company establish a policy around social media profiles while still encouraging freedom of speech and diversity of thought?

It can be much harder to do nowadays than it used to be.

“When social media first came out and Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram were seemingly taking over people’s lives, there was a desire among Fortune 1000 companies to create social media policies,” Valentine said. “Initially, some companies really pushed hard to create a sense that they owned their employees’ social media presences and could create these strict policies. Then the courts reacted.”

Since then, the courts have been adamant in drawing a line on what is a terminable offense on social media.

“An employee can say on Facebook she hates her boss. You’re allowed to say that,” Valentine said. “Your boss won’t appreciate it, but you can say that. What an employee can’t do is share company secrets, be insubordinate online or try to incite violence.”

It’s what Valentine called “traditional standards of professionalism”, and it extends well beyond political expression to encompass every American’s right to express an opinion without that opinion turning into hate speech, a violent argument, insubordination and the like.

While a small company may have a fairly loose policy, it’s critical to consider that diversity of opinion is valued and respected while keeping the workplace friendly. It’s management’s responsibility to establish a culture in which employees respect others’ opinions even if they disagree.

If you have great company values—and if employees promote them in the office and elsewhere—then any political policy would fall naturally within them. It can be as simple as: “We respect every individual’s personal political views and ask that employees do the same.”

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