With current conversations around social issues resulting in increased activism throughout the US, many employers might be wondering how best to deal with employees who express their views and/or who wish to participate in protests and other forms of political, social or similar action. While organizations generally should strive to be supportive of all of their employees, employers would do well to minimize workplace disruption associated with political and other potentially controversial or contentious topics. Americans generally enjoy freedom of speech and assembly, but these rights are not unfettered in private (and even in public) sector workplaces. It is important for organizations to maintain a professional neutrality.
State the Facts
All organizations should have comprehensive and clearly-communicated anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies in place. Standing behind and consistently enforcing such policies is a good way to let employees know that diversity, inclusiveness, mutual respect and equality are important values to the organization. Ensuring that these values are woven throughout all levels of the organization is critically important. Adherence to Equal Employment Opportunity and related policies, and affirmations that the organization will operate in accordance with those policies – including by delivering periodic training and holding all personnel accountable for adhering to them –, will also go a long way towards ensuring employees understand the employer’s commitment.
Sincerely Considering Employee Concerns
Even the perceived existence of inequality or discrimination can torpedo efforts to promote harmony and maintain high morale. In some cases, internal surveys related to company culture and job satisfaction can provide a way to gauge employee morale, and offer employees an opportunity to explain why they are (or perhaps are not) content with their employment. It is important for employers to follow-through on these survey responses and, if/when necessary, initiate an investigation and remediate. Issues uncovered but left unaddressed can lead to additional employee relations issues, if not outright claims against the employer. Employers that invite employee feedback but do nothing with the responses may be viewed as disingenuous by employees, which can result not only in morale issues and claims, but also loss of talent as such employees may be emboldened to leave, and may make their sentiments public if they do.
Support Employees, Not Causes
Some employees may wish to participate in social action events, such as protests, in their off-duty time. Except in cases where there is legitimate employment-related impact, it is important for employers to make sure that workers are not penalized at work for their lawful activity when they are not at work. While organizations can make clear that it supports each employee’s right to engage in whatever political, social, religious or similar activity outside of work as each employee may choose – without expressing an opinion or slant one way or the other –, it can similarly express support for employees who do not wish to engage in any kind of activism. Employers should make clear, however, that the workplace is not the appropriate venue to espouse political, religious, social or controversial views, nor should employees be made to feel compelled or coerced to engage in any such conversation or activity. Maintaining neutral support of both employee activists and non-activists alike, while remaining impartial and unaligned to any of their specific causes, can help organizations maintain workplace harmony, even in cases where workers on both sides of an issue are present.