How to Navigate Personal Politics in the Workplace
You’re finally back to meeting with your team in-person to reconnect, and you invite whomever is comfortable for a team lunch where you can rebuild those real-time connections. At the end of the lunch, you happen to leave for the parking lot at the same time as your employees. As they walk to their car, you’re shocked to see them flying a flag on their car with some choice words about the Prime Minister, along with bumper stickers that are questionable to say the least.
As the shock subsides, you need to ask yourself how you should handle the situation. What do you do when an employee expresses extreme or controversial political views, especially if they want to do so in the workplace?
There are a few key considerations to keep in mind.
The ‘workplace’ is now a fluid concept.
If you had all of your employees in one physical location prior to the pandemic, you’ve likely had to shift your business to either some sort of work from home or hybrid model, which may be your new permanent setup. That means that you’ve likely had plenty of video calls over the last two years looking at employees surrounded by messy bedrooms, children’s clutter, or other home effects that they have on hand.
These work from home examples show that the work and private space are now often blended. Even if employees have a legal right to disconnect after working hours, they’re often working in their personal living space, which means that their personality and their politics are more likely to shine through.
Remote work may mean less control.
When you had all of your employees in an office, you could set policies that determined what they wore to work (within reason), what they had on their desks, or even what sort of mugs they used in the kitchen. If you wanted to set a uniform policy that ensured only one colour could be worn, or that there were no personal effects on desks or no personal mugs could be used, you could effectively do that (although it may have come off as draconian). When an employee works from home though, it’s much harder to control what parts of their personality they are choosing to show.
The reality is about figuring out where to draw the line. Employees may have political opinions that differ from your own, and that’s okay! Your best employees may be those who actively campaign for a political party, who completely oppose your own personal views, and that’s also fine. Diversity in the workplace is not just about race or ethnicity - diversity of backgrounds and opinions can make for a better and more dynamic working environment.
Employers can still set guidelines.
Even if your employees are not on your own premises, you still have the option to set guidelines for your workplace that make sense for your business. You can establish workplace dress codes or guidelines on what gets discussed during working hours. However, rules should make sense at the end of the day, and not just be an excuse to exercise power. For example, an office dress code should be different from a work from home dress code, and requiring employees to wear formal business attire at home when they’re not on video calls with clients is a stretch. Generally speaking, the rules and policies that you set when all employees were on-site should be revisited so that they make sense for workers in a post-pandemic working environment. Bottom line is, don’t set rules just to set rules, constantly examine these rules and make sure they make sense, not only for your business but also for your employees.
Remember that human rights count.
The line starts to blur when political opinions descend into hate speech. Given the recent truck convoy protests in Ottawa and Toronto, most of the attendees were vocally irate with mask mandates and current government actions. Two years of recurring lockdowns and social distancing have elicited a flurry of strong emotions from even the quietest of Canadians when discussing the issue. However, there is a sharp divide between criticism of a government in ones off-hours, and waving a Nazi or Confederate flag, as were seen at the protests (although these are of course some of the more extreme examples). The latter are undeniable symbols of hate that are invoked to target specific groups, and that sort of speech is never acceptable in a workplace, and should NOT be tolerated.
Employers have a responsibility for the health and safety of their employees, and that includes keeping them free from workplace bullying and harassment. If an employee is expressing political views that leave their colleagues feeling threatened for their safety, that is a serious cause for concern. Employers can protect their employees against that sort of conduct through strictly enforcing policies, and enforcing serious penalties against any infractions.
Public and private lives can and do intersect.
Employers are also concerned if an employee’s political opinions threaten to harm their brand. An employee’s politics in their off-hours may not generally impact their work, but lines are crossed if, for example, an employee displays questionable behaviour wearing an identifiable work uniform. Those sorts of activities can seriously harm a brand (as seen when such incidents are picked up by the media) and employers can take swift action against employees for such behaviours.
Employees who are questioned about such activities can be quick to trumpet their rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but not only are those rights limited, they do not stop an employer from making certain business decisions. Employees may be free to assemble as citizens, but attending a political rally in a work uniform may be an absolute no-no.
Difficult conversations are...well..difficult.
When problematic incidents happen, employers have the difficult task of having conversations with employees about what is and is not acceptable. Workplace policies should always serve as a guide to these conversations, and it can be hard to issue discipline without a policy in place.
Here are a few helpful tips to get through them:
- Always approach the conversation carefully and gently. Politics are deeply personal, and folks can be incredibly passionate about their beliefs.
- Set the ground rules for what is and is not acceptable when it comes to work. You may not agree with a person’s views, or another coworker of theirs may hold completely opposite views, but that does not mean that the two cannot effectively collaborate.
- Refer to workplace policies to determine what’s out of bounds, and what should and should not be allowed in the workplace. Remote work may have made these boundaries harder to define (think about the car in the restaurant parking lot), but there can still be clear lines in the sand. For employers, your policies are the guidelines you’ve set for your employees, and it’s important to ensure these guidelines make sense and are well understood by your employees.
Lastly, don’t go it alone. As HR experts, we specialize in advising employers on how to navigate those difficult conversations. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help.