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How Houston companies big and small should approach politics in the workplace

In these highly divisive times, it can be a struggle to curb political discussions in the workplace. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Politics has always managed to find its way into the workplace. Casually popping up in conversation here and there. Usually reserved for the water cooler. It always managed to seep through the cracks like a gentle breeze. But, what was once just a breeze, has now become a tsunami.

Politics in the workplace doesn't just casually pop up anymore. In many respects, it has consumed it. According to Harvard Business Review writer Rebecca Knight, companies themselves are now taking political stances. With the advent of social media, political grandstanding is more prevalent and even encouraged in the workplace in many places, than ever before.

The problem is obvious. Few things are as divisive as politics. With emotions often running at a fever pitch, you're bound to see tension and friction in the workplace. Once it starts to disrupt business and the flow of work, it's time to rethink your company's approach to political discourse on the boss's dime.

Establish a policy for politics in the workplace

You have a right to free speech, even in the workplace. Read that again. Because it's completely WRONG.

You don't have a right to free speech in most workplaces. A private employer can and usually does establish a set of rules for politics in the workplace. If you're an employer and you don't want to completely ban political discussion, you can still establish policies to prevent the display of political support in the office. The golden rule here is to stay neutral. Don't highlight a specific political view or party or candidate over another.

"Talking politics can be tricky, but, like many things it's an unavoidable part of the workplace. Hold strong, the presidential race will be over (soon), and everyone will be back to talking shop (at least until inauguration)," said Lynze Wardle Lenio, in her article for The Muse.

Handling complaints

This depends on your particular company's policy on politics. Does your company prohibit all conversations about politics? Can your employees talk politics on lunch breaks? If someone is in violation of your policy, the first action should be to confront them privately and remind them of the policy.

"If your policy is more lax, you might want to encourage the complainant to respectfully ask the person engaged in political talk to take their conversation somewhere else," said Macy Bayern of TechRepublic.

"Never discipline an employee for having a different political opinion from another employee. The discipline should only come within the framework of the company's policy," she continued. Are they making someone uncomfortable? Are they wasting company time? Creating workplace hostility? These are all grounds for serious reprimanding.

Handling harassment

Now we're venturing into more serious territory. It's one thing to have complaints about people talking about an election out in the open. It's another to have complaints that someone was attacked for their political beliefs. "You're the employer. You have a responsibility to keep your employees safe above all else. That means protecting them from bullying," Bayern expressed.

This is a situation where you should be more firm in your reprimanding. Although it's not illegal per se, since political leanings aren't a protected class, you still want to nip this in the bud before it compromises the integrity of the entire office. The last thing you want is for employee morale to dip because of bullying. If allowed to go unpunished, this could easily spill over into bullying because of race, sex or religion. Then you have a legal problem.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

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