Third Eye

Employers should keep politics out of working stations

Tuesday, May 24th, 2022 04:00 | By

As the political clock ticks to the August elections, emotions run high and discussions get heated, leaving employers to wonder about ways to defuse political conflicts in the office.

Given the contentious nature of politics and the diversity of the labour force in any given institution, the goal of most employers is to keep the workplace comfortable for all.

Everyone has experienced politics in the workplace where employees argue about candidates vying for political office and issues of interest. This is an avoidable annoyance.

This week, political parties and independent candidates will have to meet statutory election timelines set by IEBC for the General Election. And given many employees’ intense interest in candidates and issues, some employers are losing productivity, attention to client service and employee focus as personnel discuss or advocate their political opinions. This is unethical as it boils down to negative organizational culture.

Workplace talk about candidates often includes mention of their tribe and cultural beliefs, integrity—in the context of fitness to run for or hold public office or their views on hot social matters or polarising issues on which there frequently are strong and opposing views among the public.

The potential for heated disagreements—and inflammatory or ill-advised comments is inevitable. Unfortunately, such comments sometimes cause divisions along tribal lines in the workplace.

Employers have the right to ban in their workplaces any non-work-related activities and there is no general law protection for employees’ political activities at the workplace.

Employers can prohibit employees from displaying campaign or issue-oriented materials at workstations; distributing political materials in the office; soliciting support or money for candidates; wearing campaign attire or other items advocating candidates, and using the employer’s resources to express their thoughts.

There are several steps for employers concerned about potentially work-disrupting productivity. First, prepare and implement a strong “no political activity” policy having appropriate carve-outs for expressions protected by the applicable laws.

Such properly drafted policies not only are permitted but also are widely thought to be an employer best practice’. It may be impractical to impose an absolute ban on political expression.

Thus, a typical policy will be limiting employees’ political communications during working times in the office, and state that oral communications about political issues related to wages, hours and working conditions are permitted when all employees involved are on non-working time, and distribution of materials about the subjects is permitted in non-working areas during non-working times unless the communications disrupt operations or are inappropriate in tone or content.

Employers also may wish to discourage supervisors from having political discussions with subordinates to minimise potential claims of discrimination, harassment or bullying. Of course, a policy must be tailored to fit any applicable law.

If the employer’s ‘politics’ policy does permit some workplace discussions of candidates or issues, the employer also should periodically remind employees, perhaps by redistribution of existing “communications” policies that the institution insists on respectful treatment of all personnel, and does not tolerate discrimination, harassment or retaliation, limits employees’ access to and use of social media.

Such reminders will make plain that political discussions also must comply with existing policies and will be a helpful predicate to future discipline if “politics in the workplace” gets out of hand.

Second, the employer should enforce its policy even-handedly—not only consistent enforcement among all employees regardless of political affiliation or opinion but also consistency as to subject matter.

If a violation is suspected or a complaint is made, a careful investigation should be conducted and discipline meted out as appropriate. It is important that any policy violation be based on the fact of or manner of the political communication and not its message.

That is, employees should be punished for their behaviour and not their ideas because content-based discipline is more likely to lead to claims of discrimination.

Employers need not lose control of their workplaces during the run-up to the general elections. A carefully crafted and uniformly enforced policy limiting political activities will lower the risk of employee claims while increasing worker productivity.

— The writer is communication and governance expert based in Nairobi

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