What Happens When the Office Coffee Comes With Politics?

Dear Rita:A With the elections less than a month away, the food bank I direct will be buzzing with passionate political talk. This could create a minefield. Any suggestions? - MinefieldA Watcher

Dear Minefield Watcher:

Many of the people who work at community nonprofits care deeply about their communities, so it's understandable that they may be passionate about elections as well. In fact, a recent study showed that 35% of bosses and 66% of coworkers openly discuss politics at work. Despite the complications of limiting political speech in the workplace,A the risk of allowing offensive workplace expression is far greater than limiting it. The trick is to err on the side of stopping controversial and disruptive communications without overreacting to the usual day-to-day bantering among employees.A On the other hand, nonprofits that attempt to regulate political speech outside of the workplace do so at their own risk.A There isn't a singleA right answer on where the line should be drawn on political speech at work.

Here are seven guidelines that may help:

1. The first golden rule is that discussions should remain respectful of divergent opinions. You and the food bankaEU(tm)s supervisory staff should steer clear of seemingly innocent, but snarky, off-hand political remarks. Discussions around the coffee pot this year can be punctuated with issues about gender, race, age and disability aEU" all categories protected by nondiscrimination laws. Statements such as aEUoeI have problems voting for a woman or an African AmericanaEU aEUoeHeaEU(tm)s too old to run the countryaEU or aEU~Can you believe the candidate has a special needs child?aEU could come back to haunt a manager who later terminates the over-40 female African American bipolar employee. If she sues, keep your checkbook at the ready. Conversations about whether a candidate is qualified for the number one job in this country can still support diversity and inclusion and show respect for employeesaEU(tm) different views.

2. The second golden rule is that political chatter should not interfere with job duties. The bottom line is that the purpose of being at work is to work and employers may discipline or terminate employees who act unprofessionally or create disturbances in the workplace. The same rules that apply to disruptive behavior in general apply to political discourse that is disruptive.

3. Be sure to keep politics out of employment decisions. Although theA First AmendmentA generally does not protect political speech at work, many state laws protect employees and prospective employees from discriminatory actions based on political affiliation or political activity. Politics should never be a factor in employment decisions. Last year, 19 employees at the U.S. Department of Justice stepped down in the wake of a firestorm over the firings of some U.S. prosecutors, apparently at least partly because of their perceived political views. According to Associated Press, aEUoe[S]ome of the fired U.S. attorneys maintain that the firings in late 2006 were motivated by politics and not the job performance of the prosecutors.aEU This controversy, still under investigation, was a factor in the departure of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The best advice is to hire and retain the best person for the job, without regard to their political affiliation.

4. EmployersaEU(tm) political speech may be restricted. For example, some states have laws barring distribution of political messages in paycheck envelopes or warning of job consequences if a certain candidate is elected. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that a major corporation advised its employees that electing a presidential candidate from a particular party could adversely affect their jobs. This type of statement to rank-and-file employees is, more likely than not, illegal.

5. Nonprofits that already have no-solicitation policies in place can apply them to the handing out of political brochures and the selling of Girl Scout cookies. The no-solicitation policy should uniformly limit or prohibit seeking support for and distributing literature about any type of nonwork activity.

6. Employers can prohibit employees from making political statements to clients while on work time or dressing in a manner aEU" wearing political buttons, tee-shirts and so forth aEU" that may interfere with doing the work of the mission.

7. Employers should beware of regulating political activity outside of the workplace. Although the law varies widely from state to state, most courts would side with the employer only when the regulated political speech is demonstrably harmful to the nonprofitaEU(tm)s legitimate business mission. A few state laws go even further by specifically prohibiting discrimination for lawful activities outside of work, including political activities.

One Final Thought

Encourage all of your employees aEU"regardless of what candidates they support aEU" to participate in the democratic process.A Remember, most states have laws allowing employees paid time off to vote.

Comments (8)

  • Rita,
    While I think you make some good general suggestions and some areas are more clear, I think there might be gray areas for organizations that have a mission based stance that is in direct opposition of a politicians or a political party's point of view. Those organizations may have a culture where it's almost expected that you as a staff person fall on one side of the political argument and if you're on the "wrong" side then you have not business working at the nonprofit.
    That One

    Oct 15, 2008
  • That One
    Even given the idea that non-profits should only hire people who lean a particular way it still isn't a good idea to be disrespectful of alternative viewpoints - let alone allow casual assumptions about people's views to disrupt the office (which is pretty much all Rita's posting says to avoid).
    Even when generally believing in the same societal goals individuals may have different sets of considerations when voting that can still reasonably lead to different decisions. Some people just won't vote for someone who has had an extra-marital affair or who endorses Choice though they would otherwise approve of the candidate's positions. Others might see the arguments put up by the "assumed" side as not fully supporting the values they say they are promoting as well as the "other" side's do. Maybe they're further to the assumed "side" than everyone else and rather than supporting the mainstream candidate they're going for a more "fringe" candidate; even a "spoiler" candidate.
    But more than that I take issue with the idea that culture where it is "expected that you as a staff person fall on one side of the political argument and if you're on the "wrong" side then you have not business working at the nonprofit." is OK.
    Assuming because you work somewhere you have to support a candidate (who by nature of the political process is bound to be a compromise anyway) is an incredibly anti-democratic approach and a frightening thing to hear accepted as OK. I hope you have no management responsibilities anywhere I or anyone I know works.
    This One

    Oct 15, 2008
  • I think it is important to remember that just because someone affiliates with a political party, does not mean he or she embodies all of the current values of that party, or is completely enthusiastic about the current running candidate.
    For instance, I work at a nonprofit with mostly liberal Democrats on the staff, but with a few Republican staff members. The organization and all of our staff are committed to improving the lives of children, but some of us have different ideas on how the Federal government should be involved in state and local decisions. The Republicans on our staff hold their political views and live their lives in-line with their values of helping kids, and so I think they do have business working in this nonprofit, and their opinions should also be respected.
    I strongly urge nonprofiteers to not always assume that whomever they are speaking with in the nonprofit circles is Democrat, and to keep the bashing of the other party or other candidates in check, and least when not among close friends.

    Oct 15, 2008
  • Valuble Information.

    Oct 16, 2008
  • I agree with That One: political litmus tests are crucial for nonprofits that are doing mission-based worked. It might be nice in some kind of global, some-day-we'll-all-listen-to-each-other way to have a Republican staff person in an environmental organization, but the bottom line is that that person has made choices in his or her life that are antithetical to the mission of the organization, and at the very least will interfere with the person's ability to stay on-message.
    I once interviewed at a progressive organization that works on global-justice issues, and they gave me the following scenario: "Let's say it's the day after 9/11. You come to the office and find that a giant American flag has been hung over the front entry. You learn that an employee that you supervise has hung it there. What would you do?" Well, the "what would you do" part is a red herring. Clearly it's too late. The real questions are about the organization's hiring screens and its internal political education. Granted, that was an emotional historical moment, and people's immediate responses weren't always well thought out. But why would you have an employee with no understanding of American imperialism working in an anti-imperialist organization?
    Clearly it's a different thing when the mission and the politics don't conflict--when, say, FEMA screens candidates by asking their views on abortion or judicial activism, but politics matters in the work of nonprofits. And in fact the water-cooler is probably the wrong forum for it, since many orgs would be better served by confronting their politics head-on, even if they have to veer at the last moment away from actual candidate support or opposition.

    Oct 16, 2008
  • Wow. This is scary. The person who wrote "why would you have an employee with no understanding of American imperialism working in an anti-imperialist organization?" and cites the hypothetical issue of displaying the American flag after 9/11 is making all kinds of questionable assumptions. Who decided that American can be defined as an imperialist nation? Who gets to decide what a valid understanding of imperialism is? Who decided that 9/11 was the result of American imperialism? If the basic premise of a "global-justice" organization (be careful about the word "justice") and its employees is that America is an imperialist nation and that opinion is stated as fact, I question the ability of such an organization to be a global peacemaker or have meaningful dialogue.
    If the leaders and employees of non-profits cannot respect diverse views and engage in honest conversation about critical issues, what hope do we have?

    Oct 17, 2008
  • Considering the strict IRS rules against a nonprofit engaging in electioneering, I think it's absolutely appropriate to expect that no political buttons or T-shirts or pamphlets set foot in the door of a nonprofit. Obviously, we all like a good round of critiquing of last night's debate, and that's fine to have a respectful discussion with your co-workers about that, but anything that looks like electioneering on the job could put your 501c3 status in jeopardy. The rules are clear. A little lobbying for a particular bill or policy is allowed, but electioneering is prohibited outright.
    -Jennifer in Chicago

    Oct 16, 2008
  • Wouldn't it be taking it too far if the company prohibit an employee's political efforts outside of the workplace or company time? If this be the case, politicians could control the company either way if the company were "persuaded" enough. - A Concerned Citizen

    May 20, 2009

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