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The 2016 election cycle may be causing greater tension over politics at work. According to a poll by the Society on Human Resource Management (SHRM), 26% of HR professionals polled perceived a greater amount of workplace volatility this election cycle. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, considering the increasingly confrontational rhetoric in the political sphere. The growing tensions over this year’s election could cause more heated discussions amongst employees, leading to divisive workplace relations.

These kinds of issues arising from political activity at work could also lead to a breakdown in workplace cohesion and teamwork if your employer doesn’t manage them properly.

What Every Employee Needs to Know About Discussing Political Views in the Workplace

Discussing Politics at Work Comes with Mixed Expectations

Employers vary in their approach to handling political discussions in the workplace. The SHRM poll also indicates that most employers (around 72%) have policies in place to discourage workplace political activities. Of course, when it’s time to head to the polls, 86% of workplaces give their employees time off to vote. Employees, on the other hand, may also have varying expectations.

For example, some employees may follow oft-repeated advice not to discuss politics at work. But others may believe (often incorrectly) that they have a First Amendment right to free speech in the workplace, and make use of that perceived right.

Discussing Politics in the Workplace is Protected – Sometimes

Although both employers and employees may tend to view themselves as having unlimited leeway when it comes to political discussions in the workplace, the legal reality is more complex. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) considers some political discussions “protected concerted activity.” Discussions related to labor issues are specifically protected. But some other discussions which have nothing to do with labor issues may not be protected by the NLRB’s rule. Federal law prohibits employers from pressuring rank-and-file employees to contribute to a particular political campaign or support a particular employer, although they may attempt to persuade a restricted class of employees including senior executives, professional employees and managers. Some states have more restrictive laws regarding the persuasion of employees to support a campaign.

Employers Push the Envelope on Political Discrimination

Employees, on the other hand, should not assume that their speech is protected. Because political groups are not a protected class under Title VII, federal law doesn’t prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on their political beliefs. But some states – like California – do have laws that prohibit such discrimination. Even so, there is usually an exception for conflicts of interest; such as when a newspaper prohibits its reporters from campaigning for a particular candidate, since the newspaper has an interest in appearing impartial. Under the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, however, employers can express their political views so long as they’re not related to a particular campaign. Some employers may push the envelope in this regard, going so far as to distribute political pamphlets to their employees. Although the guides may be neutral towards different candidates, they might include suggestive color coding and biased presentation of information.

So, should you discuss politics in the workplace? It’s always a good idea to think before you speak – especially in a professional environment. Before speaking about anything political with a co-worker or your boss, simply consider the information above and then make your own judgment call.

If you feel that your employer is unlawfully discriminating against you because of your political views, contact the California employment attorneys at Hennig Ruiz for a free consultation.