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Election year? Hold your tongue at the office

This year is an election year and political tensions are running high. Everyone seems to have their own opinion on "the issues," but not everyone has the right to express those opinions. Although government workers are protected by federal regulations that govern free speech, many workers may not know that private employers can restrict political discussion entirely because of its potential to create a hostile work environment.

Employers are permitted to ban political speech altogether or allow any kind of political banter. In addition, they are allowed to squelch particular viewpoints, allowing Democrats to voice their opinions while Republicans are expected to keep quiet, for example. Employers can also fire employees who hold a different opinion or stance, depending upon the requirements of the workplace.

Employees in the private sector need to realize that if they are at-will workers, they can be fired for anything they do or say, even if it's outside the workplace. For this reason, all employees are encouraged to understand their company's stance on political speech in all environments.

Although political discussions among adults tend to remain civil in the workplace, they can quickly devolve into offensive or pervasive problems. The arguments could potentially violate workers' protections against discrimination based on age, gender, race and other personal variables. Racist or sexist references to candidates, though politically based, can lead to an ongoing hostile environment for people who are forced to listen.

Political speech could even lead directly to a discrimination lawsuit, say professionals, because of the charged nature of many debates. Employers need to be aware that these suits could hold supervisors liable, even if they were not engaged in the political discussions. Employers have a responsibility to make sure that their workers are psychologically and physically comfortable during their time spent at work.

Source: Lansing State Journal, "Political talk best kept away from work," Dianne Stafford, April 15, 2012

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