‘A fine line’ on po­lit­i­cal speech

Lim­it­ing ex­pres­sion can lead to di­vi­sions

The News-Times (Sunday) - - Sunday Business - By Paul Schott

Amer­i­cans will go to the polls in three weeks. But their con­ver­sa­tions about the can­di­dates and is­sues dom­i­nat­ing the elec­tion will not end on Nov. 6.

While the First Amend­ment guards against gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship of po­lit­i­cal view­points, courts have given pri­vate-sec­tor firms sig­nif­i­cant lat­i­tude. Gain­ing con­sen­sus on man­ag­ing work­place po­lit­i­cal ex­pres­sion is an in­creas­ingly fraught task for com­pa­nies in a hy­per-par­ti­san era in which NFL play­ers and the pres­i­dent are clash­ing over voic­ing on the-job opin­ions.

“In the work­place, you don’t have the same free­dom of speech that you do out­side the of­fice,” said David Lewis, founder and CEO of Nor­walk-based HR con­sult­ing and out­sourc­ing firm Op­er­a­tions Inc. “But it’s a tough mes­sage to tell em­ploy­ees you can’t talk about pol­i­tics, if at the same time the CEO or other Clevel ex­ec­u­tives are talk­ing about or post­ing on so­cial me­dia about pol­i­tics. You have to walk a fine line.”

Dif­fer­ing views

Slightly more than half of U.S. em­ploy­ees say they are com­fort­able with the ex­tent of po­lit­i­cal ex­pres­sion in their or­ga­ni­za­tions, ac­cord­ing to a new sur­vey of about 2,000 work­ers by Stam­ford­based job-search site In­deed.

About half of both lib­er­als and con­ser­va­tives said they felt mostly com­fort­able shar­ing their views.

“Most peo­ple prob­a­bly feel that way be­cause they’ve suc­cumbed to the fact that their First Amend­ment rights are lim­ited in the work­place,” said David Cad­den, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus in Quin­nip­iac Uni­ver­sity’s busi­ness school. “They’re prob­a­bly more con­cerned with the of­fice pol­i­tics than their abil­ity to enun­ci­ate their view­points on na­tional pol­i­tics.”

There are, how­ever, gen­der­based dif­fer­ences. Among lib­er­als, the rates of those com­fort­able with the amount of po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion in the work­place ran at 38

per­cent of men and 27 per­cent of women. Among con­ser­va­tives, 35 per­cent of men said they were com­fort­able, com­pared with 23 per­cent of women.

About two-thirds said they did not think that po­lit­i­cal groups were be­ing si­lenced in the work­place, while 23 per­cent held the op­po­site view.

Of the 23 per­cent who as­serted cer­tain groups were be­ing si­lenced in their or­ga­ni­za­tions, 60 per­cent blamed their peers’ ac­tions, while 40 per­cent de­scribed their firms’ lead­ers as the cul­prits.

Within the group re­port­ing cen­sor­ship, two-thirds said con­ser­va­tive groups were be­ing si­lenced, while the bal­ance said lib­eral fac­tions were re­pressed.

At the same time, 20 per­cent said they wanted po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sions to be banned at work.

De­bate about protests

HR ex­perts such as Lewis trace the charged en­vi­ron­ment for at-work po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sions to the 2016 elec­tion which fea­tured two con­tro­ver­sial can­di­dates, now-Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Demo­cratic nom­i­nee Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Re­cent episodes such as the par­ti­san ran­cor sur­round­ing the con­fir­ma­tion of U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice Brett Ka­vanaugh con­tinue to stoke the po­ten­tial for on-the-job po­lit­i­cal ac­ri­mony.

“In 2016, peo­ple were talk­ing about pol­i­tics at work at a rate and level that we hadn’t seen prior to that elec­tion,” Lewis said. “It didn’t stop, it con­tin­ues to flare up, and I ex­pect it will flare up again af­ter this elec­tion.”

Since he was elected, Trump has be­come em­broiled in ar­guably the most con­tentious show of po­lit­i­cal speech in an Amer­i­can work­place: the protests of NFL play­ers dur­ing the na­tional an­them.

The re­sound­ing ma­jor­ity of NFL play­ers stand dur­ing the an­them, but some are still protest­ing, say­ing they want to raise aware­ness about cases of po­lice bru­tal­ity and other so­cial in­jus­tices.

“The kneel­ing en­rages some peo­ple be­cause they don’t think the play­ers should be protest­ing while they’re at work,” Cad­den said.

Eric Reid, a safety who started kneel­ing when he was a 49ers team­mate of Colin Kaeper­nick, took a knee be­fore his first game, on Oct. 7, with the Carolina Pan­thers. No team­mates joined, but sev­eral em­braced him af­ter the an­them.

Kaeper­nick has not played in the league since the 2016 sea­son. In Oc­to­ber 2017, he filed a griev­ance against the NFL al­leg­ing col­lu­sion af­ter he was not signed by an­other team af­ter opt­ing out of his 49ers con­tract seven months ear­lier.

Be­fore he joined the Pan­thers, Reid had filed ear­lier this year his own griev­ance af­ter he was not ini­tially signed by an­other team dur­ing the past off-sea­son.

Dis­cre­tion rec­om­mended

An in­quiry to the state De­part­ment of La­bor on the state’s in­volve­ment in work­place po­lit­i­cal ex­pres­sion was re­ferred to the state Com­mis­sion on Hu­man Rights and Op­por­tu­ni­ties and Of­fice of State Ethics.

The CHRO en­forces civil rights laws in Con­necti­cut. But po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tion is not a pro­tected class ba­sis un­der those statutes, so the CHRO would not have ju­ris­dic­tion over a com­plaint filed solely on that ba­sis, said a com­mis­sion spokesman.

Sim­i­larly, the OSE does not reg­u­late po­lit­i­cal ex­pres­sion in pri­vate-sec­tor or­ga­ni­za­tions.

With gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials gen­er­ally not mon­i­tor­ing on-the-job po­lit­i­cal speech, Lewis rec­om­mends that em­ploy­ers be con­sis­tent in their rules and lean to­ward lim­it­ing po­lit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tions.

“Peo­ple’s dif­fer­ing po­lit­i­cal views can lead to some level of dis­cord at work, and that can get out of hand very quickly, like a wild­fire,” Lewis said. “But once you get to the point of ban­ning cer­tain di­a­logue, the mere fact that you have is­sued a ban has cre­ated a work­place cul­ture cri­sis. So, you have to walk a fine line.”

Fifty-four per­cent of the In­deed sur­vey re­spon­dents said they did not think their po­lit­i­cal be­liefs af­fected their ca­reer prospects, while 25 per­cent said their views did have an im­pact. Twenty-one per­cent were un­sure.

“The be­lief that peo­ple’s po­lit­i­cal views will af­fect their ca­reer prospects may lead some peo­ple to choose com­pa­nies they align with po­lit­i­cally, po­ten­tially lead­ing to even more po­lit­i­cally po­lar­ized work­places,” In­deed of­fi­cials wrote in a blog post about the sur­vey find­ings. “Each com­pany will need to an­swer for it­self whether that is a di­rec­tion it is will­ing to head in.”

As­so­ci­ated Press

Carolina Pan­thers safety Eric Reid kneels as head coach Ron Rivera, right, and Cam New­ton stand dur­ing the na­tional an­them be­fore a game against the New York Gi­ants in Char­lotte, N.C., last Sun­day.

Eric Risberg / As­so­ci­ated Press

Palm trees frame a large bill­board on top of a Nike store that shows former San Fran­cisco 49ers quar­ter­back Colin Kaeper­nick at Union Square in San Fran­cisco.

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