Inauguration celebrations this month for N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory and President Barack Obama may be reviving workplace talk about politics. This can make for uncomfortable situations. But at what point can it pose legal risks for your business?
ShopTalk posed that question to Mason Alexander, managing partner of the Charlotte office of Fisher & Phillips, LLP, a law firm focused on labor and employment issues.
N.C. law only speaks to voting, Alexander said: An employer can’t tell an employee how to vote, or retaliate against an employee for voting one way or another.
When it comes to other areas, Alexander said employers and employees should use good judgment.
A political bumper sticker on your car is generally fine. But walking into work wearing a T-shirt in support of a candidate you know a lot of coworkers don’t like? “That’s kind of an in-your-face sort of thing.”
For employers, the best strategy is to not formally express personal political stances, so as not to give the impression that employees must vote a certain way to keep their jobs.
One exception is educating employees on a specific political issue, such as a piece of legislation that would have an immediate impact on the business. For example, the new Affordable Health Care Act, affecting businesses with more than 50 employees, may cause some companies to terminate their health benefits: “That’s fair game to talk about,” Alexander said.
If employees devote a lot of time to talking about politics, employers might want to handle it the same way they do the Super Bowl, or March Madness – events that can mean “a colossal loss of productivity” in the workplace.
From basketball to football to religion, “handle politics the same way,” Alexander said.
“If people are chatting and it doesn’t affect productivity, and people are not hot under the collar, that’s probably not an issue.
“…On the other hand, if people are losing focus on their jobs, then the employer needs to tell them to get back to work. This is not ‘Meet the Press,’ this is work,” he said.
Finally, small business owners should think about how political talk could impact their bottom line.
“If employees are having political discussions in front of customers, the likelihood that a customer will be offended is very good,” Alexander said.
“And in the sharply divided times that we live in, where partisan feelings are high, if I associate your business with a candidate or cause I disagree with, I may take my business somewhere else. No employer wants that. You want to make sales to Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and everyone else.”