How to Promote Civility in the Workplace

By Community Manager posted 05-13-2022 02:03 PM


Current news and social media are full of hot-button discussions and issues. And the campaign season is already in high gear. Messaging and conversations involving politics are everywhere, and the workplace is no exception. With that in mind, what are the required and appropriate boundaries between political activities and the workplace?

While some organizations may be more politically focused than others, all employers should be aware of their responsibilities in managing politics in the workplace and the potential pitfalls that allowing or even encouraging different activities might have. The political activities of both employers and employees can have implications based on federal and state law.

Employee Activities

It’s important for employers to consider in advance how to address the political activities of employees. Many conversations that begin as innocuous political discussions can become contentious and ultimately devolve into bullying or harassing behavior. Although political beliefs are not by themselves protected classes at the federal or state level, some organizations may include political beliefs as a protected class in their internal policies. Additionally, political conversations often touch on protected class issues, so federal and state harassment laws may also apply. Employers should stay vigilant in enforcing harassment, bullying, solicitation, computer use, and communication policies during the campaign season. However, while private employees typically do not have free speech rights regarding statements made in the workplace, public employees may. Public employers should be conscious of potential free-speech issues and focus on content-neutral speech restrictions.

While employers may be able to regulate the political activity of employees during worktime or at the workplace, they should exercise caution in disciplining employees for political behavior outside of work. Many states, including Colorado, have laws protecting employees from being terminated for legal, off-duty activities. While there are some exceptions to that law, it is an area that employers should approach with caution. In addition, Colorado law specifically prohibits employers from preventing their employees from “engaging or participating in politics or from becoming a candidate for public office.” (C.R.S. 8-2-108).

Political activity related to unions may also be protected under the National Labor Relations Act, and employers should be very careful in regulating or disciplining conduct in this area. However, employers may prohibit political activities during working time and in working areas and may require employees to refrain from using the company name or logo in off-duty political activities. As with other conduct policies, should you choose to have restrictions on this type of conduct, it is best to include general guidance in your employee handbook.

Employer-Sponsored Political Activities

Public and 501(c)(3) organizations are subject to considerable restrictions on their political activity and engaging in politics may raise serious constitutional issues or jeopardize an organization’s tax-exempt status. Private, for-profit employers, however, have significantly more legal freedom to engage in political activities with employees.

Before deciding to align your company with a political candidate or cause, however, you may want to consider the possible effects on your relationships with your employees and the community. Due to the divisiveness that politics can cause, you may find that identifying your organization as being on one side of an issue or political  race may alienate some of your workforce and customer or client base.

It's also important to note that some states statutorily limit the types of political communication that employers may have with their employees. Colorado, Utah, and Arizona laws prohibit employers from including in compensation materials any threats or statements intended to influence the political opinions or actions of employees. Arizona and Colorado also prohibit, within 90 days before a general election, the display of any notice containing threats to employees depending on election results, including threats to reduce their compensation or conduct layoffs. (Colorado: C.R.S. 1-13-719 and 31-10 1522; Arizona: Sec. 16-1012). Utah recently amended its statutes to make any conduct by an employer to influence or intimidate, etc. an employee related to an election a Class B Misdemeanor and forfeiture of business license. (20A-3a-503).

Workplace Civility

In addition to the legal responsibilities, fostering a civil workplace will also go a long way to avoiding political contention in the workplace. In the workplace, civility can make the difference between a harassment claim and one where people skillfully navigate their differences.

On an individual level, civility starts with “consideration.” That’s not the same as “being considerate.” Instead, it means considering what might be the other person’s perspective or situation. If you feel that a coworker is ignoring you, could it be that they’re simply preoccupied or stressed? We always emphasize the importance of assuming positive intent. We can’t know the other person’s intention, but we can assume they aren’t intentionally being rude, then frame a civil, respectful response instead of responding angrily.

At an organizational level, it’s important to expressly communicate that you expect civil, respectful behavior in all employee interactions. HR and senior management can help individuals and teams address differences by asking questions to better understand the other person’s/team’s views. Those skills — and the specific language to use in such situations – can be learned with targeted training and coaching.

Supervisors and managers should reinforce those expectations since they are most likely to hear about disagreements between employees. Supervisors can model effective, civil interactions and can coach others in navigating their differences. We also believe – and have seen consistently – the benefits of tackling uncivil, personal slights at the first sign and helping the parties navigate those differences.

Here are basic steps to encourage civil behavior among employees:

  • Hire Right: When interviewing, include questions about civil behaviors, listen attentively to responses, and look for specific examples. When reference checking, ask pointed questions and listen carefully.

  • Define Expectations: During the onboarding process, discuss expectations around conduct with each new employee.

  • Model Civil Behavior: Leadership and managers must set the tone and consistently model desired civil behaviors. A bold move may be facilitating open roundtable discussions to explore how to navigate conflicting political perspectives in the workplace.

  • Acknowledge: Ignoring the elephant in the room is a mistake. Proactively acknowledge the reality that diverse political beliefs exist among employees and communicate the need to treat each other respectfully and not let political differences negatively impact work.

  • Train: Don’t assume generic phrases such as “respectful and professional behavior” are equally defined by all employees. Identify opportunities to provide examples of acceptable behaviors and the importance of one’s choice of words.

  • Monitor and Observe: Actively listen for casual conversations and water cooler chat that grows heated or may be considered offensive. Monitor internal communication tools (Slack, intranet sites, bulletin boards, etc.). Observe staff interactions that appear out of the norm; ask questions of staff who seem distressed or agitated. Look for clues in exit interviews and turnover trends.

  • Consequences: Draft policies with consequences for uncivil behavior and hold offenders at all levels accountable.

Take steps today to address uncivil workplace behaviors. Contact our Member Experience team with questions.

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