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‘Environment of civility’ at workplace is the goal

Given the political climate and the upcoming presidential election, it is almost inevitable for workplace discussions to steer toward politics. At times the tenor of political conversations can lead to heated exchanges—ones most business leaders would prefer happened outside of the office.

Each organization should face the reality that politics do come into the workplace, especially during an election year, area leaders say.

“I’d say employers around this time of year get nervous about it,” says Benjamin Mudrick, an associate of Harter Secrest & Emery LLP who focuses on labor and employment, litigation, privacy and data security. “We get calls about what to do kind of pre-emptively, but from a lawsuit standpoint we don’t see these very often.

“When you look at how many cases that have been decided there are actually very few that have gone very far,” he adds.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, while it is important for employees to feel comfortable at work with regard to political discussions, the ultimate goal is to create an environment of civility.

The National Labor Relations Board’s Labor Law 201, Section D, prohibits employers from firing or disciplining staff for political activities that are done out of the office. The rise of the Internet and social media has made the line murkier between working hours and personal time.

“If an employee is posting racist or incendiary comments that touch on politics, in some circumstances an employer could take action against those employees,” Mudrick says. “Employers need to be very careful about taking any action against an employee for something posted on the Internet.”

Public and private employees face different situations when it comes to politics in the workplace. Public employees are protected by the First Amendment, whereas employees at private firms are generally tied to their company’s vision and work environment.

At Dixon Schwabl Inc., the firm’s collaborative nature encourages discussions on a variety of topics.

There is no specific policy in place to deal with political discourse; however, the staff is guided by the firm’s core values of respect, integrity, teamwork, community and fun, which serve as a guideline for all interactions.

“The way that we handle it is very much a common sense approach,” says Lauren Dixon, CEO of Dixon Schwabl. “We all can speak freely in America—it is our right—and, like we do with social media, we have a very open policy, a common sense policy.

“I think our folks go about it the right way. They are very respectful of one another and they’re respectful of each other’s opinions. They value understanding why people think the way they do,” she adds.

The city of Rochester has a clear outline regarding how employees should behave while on the job.

“In compliance with the city of Rochester’s Code of Ethics and Standard of Conduct, employees are expected to behave in a professional manner at all times,” says Tassie Demps, director of the city’s human resources department.  “What employees do in their free time, outside of working hours, is of their own volition. To date, we are not aware of any systemic problems related to politics in the workplace at City Hall.

“Political conversations in the workplace are neither condoned nor condemned. Professional judgment when interacting with coworkers should be adhered to at all times,” she adds.

A policy on politics is not necessary, Mudrick says. What’s more important is clear policies on harassment or discrimination and where to report incidents, as well as respect shown by top executives, he said.

“I think the key is, rather than adopting a policy prohibiting certain activity, employers should take proactive steps to encourage respectful conversations between employees and respectful behavior,” Mudrick says. “Instead they foster a certain environment where people can have discussions but in a way that doesn’t detract from the workplace.”

Employees will follow a leader’s cue, Mudrick says.

“Even though most employers shouldn’t have ‘don’t-talk-about-politics’ policies, employers should train their managers to be examples of civility and understanding,” he says. “If the CEO and the CFO are having furious political conversations, that’s going to trickle down to everyone else.”

No matter what an employee’s political stance, respect is the key to a successful workplace, officials say.

“I think employers should realize that being too strict on these issues and being overzealous about these things can backfire,” Mudrick says. “It is about creating a respectful environment where employees understand that differences and diversity of thought can strengthen a workplace rather than divide it.”

2/19/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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