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Hold Onto Your Handbooks, It’s Election Season
By Ann Potratz

The first Tuesday following the first Monday of November marks Election Day, an event that can send even seasoned HR pros into panic mode. During election season, a workplace can go from calm to crazy in a matter of minutes. Seemingly simple conversations escalate into heated moral debates that can cause irreparable damage to work relationships.

While 2019 is an off-cycle year in the federal election cycle, most states and still hold their own statewide and local elections on Election Day. And, with the 2020 presidential election approaching, now’s the time to step back and consider your company’s approach to politics at work, from policies and procedures to candidate visits and campaign contributions.

Explore these potential hazards and take a moment to consider how your company would respond.

Political debate: A candidate wants to visit
In August, President Trump gave a speech at a Pennsylvania petrochemical plant. In a widely circulated memo from management, employees were given the option to attend the event or take an unpaid day off (which also meant no overtime for the week). While the employer later clarified that they treated this event the same as they would any other mandatory, speaker-based training event, the memo sparked a national conversation about employer-mandated attendance at political events.
YOU MAY: Generally, employers may require employees to attend workplace events during regular work hours, even if the events are political in nature. They may even prohibit employees from voicing political opposition at the event (though some states and cities have passed laws that say otherwise).

YOU MAY NOT: The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects employees who discuss working conditions. If employees wish to engage in a conversation about how mandatory attendance at political events relates to their working conditions, employers should not try to stop them.

YOU SHOULD: Before agreeing to host a candidate, think about the message this type of event will send to your employees, your customers, and the general public. Sure, it might be a chance to highlight your company, but it also might drag your business into a public political debate. In addition, required attendance might alienate employees who don’t share the candidate’s political views, which could have an impact on company morale.

Best practice: Give employees the chance to opt out without consequence. While it may not be legally required, providing employees an alternative can go a long way toward employee morale.

Political debate: Buttons, stickers, and hats, oh my!
During hotly contested elections, supporters on all sides tend to want to show support for their candidate by donning political gear. Some are subtler, like bumper stickers on personal vehicles or yard signs at home, which are less likely to cause a commotion at work. Other items might pierce the workplace bubble, like pins on backpacks or T-shirts on casual Friday, putting the political conversation front and center.

YOU MAY: Generally, employers may ban political paraphernalia in the workplace. As long as the bans are enforced consistently (remember, they even apply to the CEO), a policy prohibiting the display of political gear on the employee’s person, at their desks, or on company property is usually acceptable.

YOU MAY NOT: Employees are still permitted to discuss their working conditions, even if it occurs in the form of a political discussion. If an employee wants to wear a button supporting a particular candidate’s stance on minimum wage, this type of display could be protected by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

YOU SHOULD: Remember that your employees are not robots, and they likely have political opinions all their own. Don’t expect them to check their ideals at the door, but do expect them to follow your policies and behave respectfully at all times.

Best practice: If you don’t already have one, create a policy regarding political paraphernalia in the workplace, then enforce it consistently.
 
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