You asked: “Occasionally, some of our workers get into heated discussions over politics and current events. We’d like to prevent these discussions from impacting productivity and from disturbing the peace in the office. Can we implement a policy that would prohibit the employees from these discussions?”
There are plenty of scandalous topics today in the media (i.e. the George Zimmerman trial) and in politics (the recent DOMA Supreme Court ruling). In fact, nearly anything found on TV or on the web can lead to discussions and debate among friends and acquaintances. Most of the time, this discourse is healthy, even when it gets a little heated. Such expressions are the backbone to our rights to free speech as Americans. However, these controversial topics, when they reach the workplace, can open a slew of potential risks because one person’s “discussion” can be another’s “harassment.”
If you are a business owner or manager and you witness employees discussing controversial topics, it is important that you do not restrict employees’ First Amendment rights. This is especially true if these conversations are occurring during nonworking hours such as lunch breaks, after the work day ends or before it starts. However, it is vital that you manage the situation in order to ensure that the conversations remain respectful, so that feelings are not unintentionally hurt and to limit the distractions to the work employees need to do. It is recommended that managers/supervisors coach employees on acceptable conversations at work and use the situation to teach. Encourage employees to use appropriate terms during the conversation, to listen to one another and to keep emotions in check. Make sure that employees know and trust that they can come to you and will speak up if they are not feeling comfortable with a situation. This not only shows that you care for the well-being of your team, but it protects the company from potential claims of harassment.
On the other hand, if the debates are occurring during work hours or preventing employees from meeting performance or productivity goals, then the answer is clear: address the situation by tying the specific behavior; for example, excessive chatting or failure to complete job duties timely (rather than the subject of the discussion) to a disciplinary action such as a verbal warning or a performance improvement plan, etc.
In the case that one or a few individuals are taking these conversations to the “next level” and begin to create conflict among the team or become potentially offensive, management is obligated to step in. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits harassment if the behaviors/actions are “severe or pervasive” enough to create a “hostile or abusive work environment” when the harassing behaviors are based on a protected class such as race, religion, gender, national origin, ethnicity, and color. Remember though, that depending on the state, city or municipality there may be additional protections for employees based on other factors, such as sexual orientation, marital status, education, etc. (see a previous blog post, Beyond Title VII: Federal, State and Local Discrimination Laws that Affect the Workplace, for more details).
If a manager or supervisor witnesses a discussion on a hot topic that singles out or disrespects a protected class, then he/she must take action. The use of racial or religious slurs or stereotypes generalizing an entire group of people are always harassing behaviors and must be stopped immediately. Employees are protected from retaliation for reporting a complaint and the employer is obligated by law to conduct a thorough investigation of the complaint and come up with a resolution.
The bottom line: Employees are generally not restricted from what they can discuss with one another at work UNLESS the conversations are offensive and prevalent enough to be considered harassing by an employee(s) who is in a protected class. Managers must be the upholders of the company’s policies on anti-harassment and anti-discrimination and are obligated to address both complaints received and witnessed behaviors by employees.
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