US election | What are the implications of discussing politics at work?

What are the implications of discussing politics at work?

Over the last few weeks, the news has been flooded with coverage of the US election and many have tuned in to watch the events unfold.

While the 2020 presidential election took place in the US, it is likely that employees around the world will have differing political views regarding which political parties they support and why.

It may be one thing discussing politics in personal life, though it is possible that problems could arise if it is discussed in the workplace.

In fact, legal experts have laid out the various implications of discussing politics in the workplace.

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Charlie Thompson, Employment Partner at Stewarts law firm, told HR Grapevine that politics has been a sensitive subject in the workplace, particularly since 2016.

“Although the US election was closer than some anticipated, the UK’s view seems clearer – according to YouGov, 74% of the British public have a negative opinion of Trump," he explained.

The Equality Act 2010

According to the legal expert, it is likely that – whether staff are remote or working in a physical location – there will be arguments and banter over the election. This could breach the Equality Act 2010 if it is related to a protected characteristic.

"Employers may also be vicariously liable for what their employees say to each other. Where employees raise grievances, employers will wish to avoid appearing to ‘pick a side’ in political disagreements and attempts to police these conversations may come across as authoritarian and repressive.

“It will usually be better to deal with this holistically, by reminding employees of the importance of mutual respect, regardless of the topic of conversation," Thompson added. 

With politics being a controversial subject, it is crucial that employees respect the different views of others in the workplace and this could be communicated via company training.

Personal & professional life

While employees are entitled to a private life and to hold differing opinions from others that they may work with, Joanne Moseley, Senior Associate at Irwin Mitchell, told HR Grapevine that this doesn’t mean “that they have an absolute right to say what they like”.

In fact, Moseley said that most employers have workplace policies which set out the ‘behavioural standards’ that staff must meet – such as ensuring that staff are respectful to one another.

Calling a colleague something offensive for voting a different way, or “ridiculing them for their ‘mistaken’ beliefs’” can cause problems that could be viewed as bullying or even discrimination.

The legal expert refers to UK law where a person can complain of bullying or harassment if comments are “unwanted” and contribute to the creation of a hostile working environment.

“Generally, you take your victim as you find him/her and it is not a defence to say that the comments were ‘banter’ or that the victim is too sensitive or that the comments were not directed at him/her,” Moseley added.

What can HR and employers do?

To prevent conflict from arising in the workplace, it is important to remind staff to respect one another, and the opinions that they hold.

In addition to this, Moseley explained that staff members should not allow their own political or philosophical views to impact their work or relationships with colleagues.

“If problems arise, you must take swift and effective action to prevent problems escalating,” the legal expert added.

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