The termination of a British Columbia manager for requesting that a restaurant patron remove his hat — which sported a slogan supporting U.S. President Donald Trump — has ignited debate around politics and the workplace.
“Nothing is black and white in the field of people,” said MaryAnn Kempe, spokesperson for CPHR Canada and past president of CPHR Manitoba. “From a people engagement perspective, going to the corporal punishment of termination should always typically be your last action.”
But with the topic of politics growing more divisive by the day, it would be wise for human resource professionals to get ahead of the issue, if they haven’t already, she said.
“We see the political divide happening in the United States — it’s very apparent,” said Kempe. “It’s on every news channel. It’s every night; you can’t get away from it.”
“So, how do we create cultures that allow for differences of opinion, differences of perspective, differences of religion? You don’t always have to agree, but you’ve got to bring some respect.”
Defending free speech
In terminating employee Darin Hodge, the Teahouse restaurant’s parent company said it did not support intolerance of any kind, according to media reports.
“It is because of these principles that we cannot discriminate against someone based on their support for the current administration in the United States or any other bona fide political party,” said Eva Gates, vice-president of operations for Sequoia Company of Restaurants in Vancouver.
The company’s actions in this case are understandable, according to Brian Kreissl, a human resources product development manager at Thomson Reuters in Toronto (publisher of Canadian HR Reporter).
“When you’re in a customer service kind of scenario, you’ve got to take the public as they are,” he said. “You have to be respectful and tolerant of differences of opinion — and I think that that does include political opinions.”
“As long as the person isn’t actually saying anything that’s hateful or racist… banning the person or not allowing them to be served might be a little bit much unless the entire organization has a political orientation,” said Kreissl. “If it’s just a general commercial organization, I think we have to be careful about that sort of thing.”
Going back to the first principles of the employer-employee relationship is helpful in this case, said Stuart Rudner, employment lawyer at Rudner Law in Toronto.
“As an employee, you can’t pick and choose which customers or clients you’re going to serve, the same way you can’t pick and choose which colleagues you’re going to work with.”
To decline working with colleagues or serving clients because of skin colour, religious preferences or sexual orientation is unacceptable under human rights legislation, said Rudner.
“From an employment perspective, it’s equally unacceptable to say, ‘I’m not going to serve this person because I don’t like their politics,’” he said, noting that would qualify as a fundamental breach of their duties as an employee.
“Unless there is some reason to fear for their safety or some other concern, you can’t refuse to serve a (customer) because of their political views and if you do, that should lead to discipline.”
It doesn’t matter if the customer is your ex-girlfriend or a Trump supporter, said Rudner.
“It helps to go back to first principles… You are, as an employee, required to do your job, and you can’t pick and choose when and with who you do it.”
Is policy necessary?
At this point, specific policy covering the topic of political discourse isn’t required in the workplace, according to Kempe.
“When dealing with people, try to stay with guidelines rather than policy because the minute you create a policy, then you’ve created this barrier,” she said. “There are certain things that absolutely have to be in policy — health and safety — but where there’s areas of grey, best practice is creating an environment of respect and inclusion.”
Employers with HR departments will likely already have policy and training in place to encourage staff towards inclusion, said Kempe.
“When you have a professional HR… you bring that level of sophistication that understands culture, and what drives engagement and a positive culture.”
A respectful workplace policy would broadly cover the topic of political conversation, said Kreissl.
“A lot of times, a respectful workplace policy is going to deal mainly with co-workers, but I think it could also deal with customers and suppliers, or even a code of conduct,” he said. “I don’t think a lot of organizations have policies on political views or philosophies.”
Ensuring a non-discrimination policy is in place is important, said Rudner.
“It’s important to make it clear that you can’t discriminate against anyone or refuse to work with anyone because of their political views,” he said. “When you’re talking about inter-employee relationships, you treat everybody with respect and it doesn’t matter what their political views are, or any other factors. And you may not like them, and you may not socialize with them, but you are still required to work with them to the extent that your job requires.”
Advice for HR
Going forward, retail organizations may want to explicitly state they are non-partisan, said Kreissl.
“Organizations should have policies that empower their frontline employees to be able to refuse service to people who are racist or bigoted in any way,” he said. “But to just refuse to serve someone based on their political views — as long as they’re not espousing any hateful kind of abuse — I think that’s a little much.”
Differences of opinion should continue to be expected in a free and democratic society, and discussion of different issues remains permissible — as long as it’s respectful, said Kreissl.
“If you don’t allow for differences of opinion, then I think you can run into a lot of problems,” he said.
“To truly value your organization’s diverse workforce, you should be able to allow for some debate and some comment and some back and forth, and for people to even air contrary views, because I think if you try to stifle debate and opinion, or you try to come down on one side, then you can end up getting the situation you’re seeing at Google, after the James Damore affair (when an engineer wrote a controversial memo in 2017 about the company’s diversity policies).”
“You want to try to avoid that,” said Kreissl. “You don’t want to be accused of stifling free speech, but there’s a line. It can’t be anything hateful, it can’t be anything discriminatory. And I also think you have to be very careful when you’re doing anything in front of customers or clients, or anything spoken on behalf of the organization.”
HR should also be aware that the prohibitive grounds of discrimination vary among jurisdictions across Canada, said Kempe.
“Depending on what province you’re in, and what jurisdiction you’re in, the protection of freedom of political perspective is very different.”
The photo accompanying this story has been updated.
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