Dealing with workplace politics in the wacky world of the U.S. election

Walking the tightrope between employee preferences and legal requirements
By Jonathan A. Segal
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/31/2016

In just a few days, the U.S. presidential election will take place. You are thinking about that when you see your receptionist wearing a button for her political candidate.

You ask her to remove it because you have customers of diverse political views. She says “No,” promising to file a case with the Supreme Court of the United States because you are violating her First Amendment rights. Note to the Supreme Court: We hope you enjoy her as much as we do.

Well, First Amendment restrictions do not apply to private employers. The First Amendment restricts only government action. So you nicely tell your employee either the button goes or she goes. She walks off the job. Note to file: Discuss reserve for litigation.

You continue down the hallway and see two employees wearing buttons for opposing candidates:

• A Hillary Clinton supporter’s button talks about the need for paid parental leave.

•A Donald Trump supporter’s button talks about religious liberty and Obamacare.

Thinking of the First Amendment, you tell both employees: Off with the buttons. And the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) responds: Off with your heads.

If political buttons relate to terms and conditions of employment, they may be protected under the NLRB. I won’t say anything negative about the NLRB, even though the board seems fond of disparagement as they attack non-disparagement clauses.

You go to your office and hear two employees fighting over the election.  Neither can believe their colleague would consider voting for the other candidate. It’s time to play referee.

Just focus on the disruptions without regard to the content. The NLRB probably would allow employers to focus on the disruption, if substantial, even if the issues discussed were work-related. I say probably because, as you well know, this NLRB has defined employee rights very broadly and management rights narrowly.

You go back to your office and close the door. The phone rings,  a manager asks: If I allow an employee to solicit for one candidate during his working time, do I have to grant equal access to another employee soliciting for the other candidate during her working time?

You reach into your pocket and take a pill. Yes, it was lawfully prescribed after the last holiday party.

Neither federal nor most state or local laws consider political affiliation a protected group. But forget the law:  You don’t want to alienate a sizeable portion of your workers, customers or business partners.

But allowing solicitation uniformly is not the answer to this question. Your uniform exception to your no-solicitation rule during the employee’s working time now allows employees to solicit uniformly for unions during their working time. Oh, what a web the law weaves.

After you talk with the manager, she asks you, as a friend: Whom do you favour? You think of changing the topic to something less controversial — your sex life.

Temperatures are hot and they will get only hotter. People often feel attacks on candidates are attacks on them. When the election is over, you need to work together.

So, respond only if you have a strong relationship with the person who is beyond merely professional and you are confident you both can survive knowing you may vote differently. Don’t be too confident.

You breathe deeply and begin to relax until you hear an employee making comments about Muslims or Mexicans. This is not a political, but a factual statement. Do you need to pick a side?

Yes, according to the law. Brook no bias by either side. You must respond proactively to disparaging comments about Muslims, Mexicans, Evangelical Christians, white men or any “protected group.” To ignore is to condone if you are in a position of power.

You call a friend and share what so many of us feel — you cannot wait for the election to be over. Your friend assures you that you have the holidays to look forward to — a time for peace and tranquility.

Your friend clearly either is not a human resources professional or is just plain crazy if she thinks the holidays are the most wonderful time of the year at work — that’s when every holiday decoration designed to increase inclusion is deemed a micro-aggression by someone else.

Jonathan A. Segal is a partner at Duane Morris in the Employment, Labour, Benefits and Immigration Practice Group in New York. He is also the managing principal of the Duane Morris Institute which provides training for human resource professionals, in-house counsel, benefits administrators and managers. He can be reached at jsegal@duanemorris.com. This blog was originally published by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

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