Should people talk politics at work?

Google’s clampdown on ‘disruptive’ conversations and federal election put issue in spotlight
By John Dujay
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/01/2019
Should people talk politics at work?
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer speaks in Ottawa on Aug. 21 Credit: Bing Wen (Shutterstock)

Google recently warned employees to cease all political talk while on the job due to its “disruptive” nature. The move was a surprising deviation for a company that formerly trumpeted its open and frank workplace culture. 

In updating the company’s “community guidelines,” CEO Sundar Pichai urged employees to “do the work” and “not to spend working time on debates about non-work topics,” according to Vox.com, which received a copy of the email. 

“While sharing information and ideas with colleagues helps build community, disrupting the workday to have a raging debate over politics or the latest news story does not,” wrote Pichai. 

With a federal election in Canada, and a controversial leader in the U.S., should workers be discouraged from discussing politics openly at work?

Polarizing politics

While the issue of political discussions in Canadian workplaces hasn’t been a big concern in the past, events south of the border have intensified in recent years, says Laura Williams, founder and principal of Williams HR Law Professional and Williams HR Consulting in Markham, Ont. 

“There have been cases that we’ve been engaged in discussions, for example, on [President Donald] Trump [that] have led to escalations and policies that indirectly affects us,” says Williams. 

“But that is something that employers should be vigilant [about], because they do happen and they do create not only culturally derailing types of incidents that can escalate but also they create legal exposures.”

Employers should think about how they can reinforce what’s appropriate when it comes to discussions, including political discussions within the workplace, she says. 

“It’s wise for employers to use perhaps the reality of an election being on the horizon as a time to have some discussions in the workplace, about employees being mindful about what they discuss when it comes to politics.”

It’s not only the federal election that might spark intense debate at work, says Debby Carreau, CEO of Inspired HR in Vancouver.

“The Alberta election was quite contentious back in the spring of this year,” she says. 

“We definitely saw some issues because it was very polarizing. When you’ve got someone that’s got a minority opinion, I felt like many times they come to us in HR and they say, ‘Well, I’m really uncomfortable in the workplace because people are talking aggressively about getting a new premier and how terrible the existing government is… and it’s making me really uncomfortable because everyone’s so vocal about it and I have a different perspective.’” 

Focus on free speech 

Employees have a right to free speech, but there’s also an important balance between free speech and respect in the workplace, says Carreau. 

“There’s other times and places to discuss politics — usually the workplace is not the best place for it. But, that being said, you’ve got to be careful; you can’t stamp on people’s right to free speech.”

Political beliefs are not legally considered as protected grounds in all provinces, so an employer may want to fetter such talk in the workplace, according to Colleen Hoey, a partner at Mann Lawyers in Ottawa. 

“In Quebec, their charter protects political expression; Ontario does not,” she says. 

“Often, these conversations can sometimes tread into those types of areas like religion, gender expression — those types of protected grounds — and if people are aware of their obligations under the Ontario Human Rights Code, they’re aware that how they approach their conversations with others ought not to tread into some of those areas.”

An employee’s right to free speech also has its limits, says Williams.

“Employees have rights to express themselves freely, but these rights should be curtailed by the legal requirements that are set out in legislation from a common-law perspective… certainly, when it comes to harassment and discrimination,” she says.

“Sometimes, these discussions can — particularly where someone unwittingly may be pushing the envelope with respect to the types of comments and jokes that they’re making within the workplace — constitute harassment, and that’s why employers may wish to insert themselves, from a proactive perspective, to ensure that, on a pre-emptive basis as well, conversations don’t derail.”

Formal policies can help 

Most companies already have rules in place that can handle these types of charged discussions, say experts.

“It’s really about respect in the workplace,” says Carreau. 

“Most of the policies really have to come around to that respect in the workplace and ‘How do we allow people to voice their opinions and be respectful of other people’s perspectives?’”

For employers that want to establish a set of guidelines, “the easiest way to wrap it in is around the respect in the workplace, the safe workplace, the anti-bullying, harassment policy. Putting it in there and using good judgment is really where most workplaces will put it. Unless you’ve got a manual that’s got hundreds and hundreds of policies, you’re not likely to have a special breakout section on how you deal with elections,” she says. 

Companies may also want to enact guidelines that extend beyond the workplace, says Williams. 

“You might even include in social media policies some awareness and sensitization to the fact that employees don’t have free rein on social media, even after hours, where their comments, views and opinions and posts could be connected to the employer, because that could be reputationally harmful. We’ve had many cases that have gone down that path.”

The right place to address social media concerns, according to Carreau, is in employee contracts. 

“When you hire someone, what is the code of conduct as it relates to acceptable behaviour? And then you can actually extend it beyond just what’s protected by human rights; you can actually put some things in there in terms of ‘How do you represent your brand well? How do you convey positive messaging? What are the things you can do?’ That’s usually a really good place to put it, if you’re able to do it at the onset of someone’s employment relationship,” she says. 

In addition, senior leadership needs to lead by example, says Carreau.

“[They should] role model the types of conduct that are appropriate, and also they have to be trained on how to be vigilant, look out for any signs where there could be incidents or discussions that could be veering off track of what’s appropriate within the workplace.” 

Direct intervention

Management may want to directly address the issue of people discussing politics on a company-wide basis, if things become too heated. 

“If there was a very charged atmosphere, I think that probably having a conversation [or] a meeting about ‘We’ve noticed this behaviour and we understand that people feel strongly because politics does touch on often core beliefs that are really central to people’s lives,’” says Hoey. 

“‘And because of this charged atmosphere, we wanted to remind people that the way that we have these conversations matters and if it really is detracting from time spent in the office… if people want to have these conversations, have them on their own time.’”

But if problems persist, management may have to take a more serious approach by saying, “Unfortunately, this is not working well; it’s causing some real tension in the office, so we ask between now and election day that people don’t engage in political conversations,” she says.

“That would be hard to manage, hard to enforce, but it may be necessary in some situations.”

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