A u g u s t /S e p t e m b e r 2 0 1 6
KERN BUSINESS JOURNAL
Keeping workplace peace as political tempers flare this election season By Holly Culhane
o doubt, we’re in the throes of a long, hot summer – in terms of Bakersfield’s blistering temperatures, as well as the political rhetoric now raging. Some of us may be seeing the political heat spilling into our workplaces, as Americans prepare to elect a new president. Every election I seem to declare to be “the worst” as far as the tone of campaigns and the things candidates say. But this year’s charged campaign issues may stir up candidates’ supporters and opponents to the point of targeting “protected groups,” such as women, people of color and religions. Employers need to exercise cauHolly Culhane tion when deciding whether or not to step in to diffuse a discussion that becomes heated or inappropriate. There’s a fine line between respecting employees’ and co-workers’ rights to “speak their minds” and the need to keep peace and productivity in the workplace. What’s a business and its managers to do? The solution may not be simply to ban all political talk and activities in the workplace. Federal and state court rulings and laws may stand in the way. The safest route to take before imposing any heavy-handed or “creative” workplace political speech policy is to consult a human resource spe-
cialist and an attorney who knows about election laws. Ignoring the potential impact is not the answer. Unchecked political debate may result in the creation of a hostile work environment that drives away good employees and impacts productivity. It can pose legal risks for employers. A CareerBuilder survey conducted earlier this year found one in five employees who discussed politics at work had fights or heated debates with their co-workers. No doubt, people are on edge. But keep in mind that employers are still somewhat in control. They can establish and enforce what is done in the workplace – especially on “company time.” I say “somewhat” because recent court rulings and state laws may influence how much can be restricted. And with the proliferation of mobile devices – smartphones, tablets, etc. – monitoring what is happening on company time can be tricky.
HERE ARE SOME STEPS TO CONSIDER: • A written policy can set the rules, which should be reviewed with employees. While prohibitions may overstep an employer’s authority, a policy of discouraging activities that interfere with productive work can be enforced. Focus on “outcomes” that can be measured. • Enforce the policy fairly and equitably. Don’t limit the behavior of only those with whom you disagree. Apply rules to line employees, as well as supervisors and executives. • Use common sense. Don’t become the “political
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speech police.” Employees will talk. You can’t stop all talk. But keep alert for offensive or disruptive behavior. Diffuse conflicts before they become raging problems. • If a private workplace is not governed by a labor contract, some employers believe they can discipline or fire an employee who expresses an unpopular political view. Check with an HR specialist and attorney before imposing discipline. In Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court extended individual “free speech” rights to corporations. Some may believe this gave companies the ability to influence the way their employees vote, participate in political activities, and support candidates and causes. We saw examples of employers applying their influence in the 2012 presidential election, with some companies conducting companywide “informational meetings,” encouraging “voluntary” donations to campaigns and inserting political pamphlets with paychecks. Federal and state election officials are still sorting through the legality of such activities in the wake of Citizens United. The safest strategy in this 2016 election year is for company owners and managers to stay neutral and keep politics out of their workplaces. — Holly Culhane is president of the Bakersfield-based human resources consulting firm P.A.S. Associates and P.A.S. Investigations. She can be contacted through her website www.PASassociates.com and through the PAS Facebook page.
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