Most Americans are aware that many people now publicly share strong political opinions that can hurt or insult others. While we each can decide how to handle this problem in our private lives, employers face far greater challenges. Their need and right to create a highly productive and politically neutral workplace must be carefully balanced against legitimate free speech concerns, applicable state laws and the governing provisions of the NLRA (National Labor Relations Act).
Carefully developing a company policy that protects the legal rights of all concerned takes considerable planning and input from experts. Should errors be made and employees sue their employers claiming a hostile work environment has developed, the courts will have to weigh the presented evidence and decide if any damages are owed.
Balancing the right to control worker productivity with First Amendment rights
Since employee free speech rights in most workplace settings are not absolute, political neutrality must be maintained and enforced in a highly consistent manner. Simple complaint procedures must be created and employees at all levels properly disciplined when actionable abuse has occurred. Courts may have to decide whether an office atmosphere became so severe that aggrieved employees not only had the right to sue – but should be awarded financial damages.
Here’s an overview of the key topics you must address in an office policy that seeks to maintain a workplace free of harassment and discrimination based on political views. Company owners should speak with their Houston employment law attorneys about how they can create this type of policy — while still paying proper legal respect to the rights of all parties concerned.
Key points to cover in an office policy designed to limit conflicts over political speech
- Public and private employers. Your policy must clearly reflect whether your employees are working for a private employer or some type of public or government entity;
- Abide by the NLRA. You must make it clear that any limitations you place on “political discussions” in the workplace are in full keeping with the language and intentions of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). After all, there are instances both during and after work hours when some employees may have a legally protected right to discuss certain aspects of their jobs with their co-workers;
- All employees must be covered by the policy. Indicate that all supervisory personnel will also be required to greatly limit their own discussions or expression of questionable free speech topics related to politics;
- Provide time for discussion of the policy. This might occur during all future new employee orientation programs – or when privately meeting with each new worker in your human resource manager’s office. It would be wise to consider having each current or new employee sign a form indicating they’ve been given a chance to read over the policy and ask questions about it. Be prepared to explain that the wearing of certain types of political buttons and T-shirts at work will not be allowed;
- Make it clear that you will respect employee needs for time to vote. You can encourage workers who won’t have time to stand in lines before or after their work hours to tell you in advance of their needs (if certain positions must be covered in their absence). However, you should try and remain as flexible as possible regarding this type of request;
- Indicate your awareness that some employees may choose to run for public office. Should this occur, privately ask any such employee to avoid discussing a run for any non-union office during work time. However, you should acknowledge your full awareness of the person’s right to pursue this type of activity on their own time;
- Consider revamping your overall policy against workplace harassment and discrimination. You might want to ask your lawyer to either redraft this type of policy or carefully add new provisions to it that clearly forbid workplace harassment, discrimination or retaliation based on any worker’s real (or imagined) political affiliations. This approach might help you avoid the false impression that you are attempting to place a “chill” on employee free speech rights – when you’re simply trying to extend new protections you believe are owed to all workers.
While this list is not intended to be comprehensive, it should provide you with a better idea of how important it is for you and your entire workforce to have a policy in place that addresses these crucial topics. We all deserve to work in an office that’s as politically neutral as possible so we can do our best work.
Our Murray Lobb attorneys are available to help you draft policies like this one — or any of the many contracts and other documents you need to daily run your business. We’re also available to provide legal advice on many general business, employment law or estate planning topics.