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Managing Campaigns, Protests, and Diverse Opinions in the Workplace

By Sonjui L. Kumar Email By Sonjui L. Kumar
March 2017
Managing Campaigns, Protests, and Diverse Opinions in the Workplace

 

Unless you have been in hiding, you will have noticed that this has been a contentious time for the country. Since Election Day, we have been bombarded with news of the transition, Cabinet nominees, protests, executive orders, travel restrictions, and most recently, litigation in the courts. Every day brings unprecedented headlines related to the election and the new administration. Although historically, companies have attempted to maintain the tried and true rule of not discussing politics at work, this year feels different. Anecdotally, through clients and peer firms, we hear that the divisive national conversation has entered the workplace. This creates a number of challenges for management. Think of it like a weather event, as an external factor that forces companies to make changes to lessen the impact on their business.

 

Productivity. Forbes is reporting that the state of the nation is having a major impact on employee productivity. During and after the election, people have been spending an inordinate amount of time reading news, posting opinions, following trending topics on social media, and engaging in heated discussions in the office. The amount of time spent on these activities has dramatically increased due to the nature of this particular election cycle. Management can institute policies, being mindful of employees’ rights in that process. If companies want to close down or limit access to nonwork- related internet sites, consider the practicality of enforcing the rules and the consequences of violating them. Policies should be uniformly applied across offices and employee levels. Note that restrictive policies may be more practical and applicable in certain environments, such as retail operations and manufacturing facilities, rather than offices where people work independently or remotely.

Employees’ rights. Although there may be business reasons for limiting information access during work hours, management should be careful about not violating employees’ rights to engage in discourse. Generally, political expression is legally protected speech, so companies should not arbitrarily restrict employees from expressing political opinions unless their statements are considered to be harassing or intimidating. Note that the behavior and words of management personnel or supervisors is much more important than the behavior and statements of line staff. A manager’s words, actions, or opinions can be attributed to the company and if deemed to be harassing or intimidating, may put the company at risk of an adverse action.

Morale and company culture. If a company prides itself on having a transparent environment and otherwise encourages employees to express their views, restricting political speech or opinions may run counter to that culture. Employees may also find themselves at odds with the opinions of the company’s leadership, creating tensions in the office. In the past few weeks, we have seen employees and consumers loudly protest a company leadership’s participation in activities that they disagree with, even those done privately. The resignation of Uber’s CEO from the President’s Economic Advisory Council is one example of the results of such an internal protest. In another example, 100 technology companies have filed a ‘friend of the court’ brief against the President’s Executive Order that created the travel ban, citing its impact on the employees and contractors. These incidents highlight the importance of companies and their management being sensitive to and considering the opinions of their employees (and consumers) before openly adopting political positions.

Tactics that have been successfully adopted by companies include
• creating open dialogue meetings so that workers can air their concerns and opinions;
• issuing company-wide communications acknowledging the issues and asking for civility and respect during work hours; and
• using facilitators to host discussions that allow expression of diverse viewpoints.

Summary. To run smoothly and productively, businesses must adjust their operations to accommodate national events that impact their employees; provide an environment that allows employees to express their viewpoints respectfully; and consider the opinions of employees and customers before the company or its senior management participates in partisan activities which may create public relations problems that impact the bottom line.


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Business Insights is hosted by the Law Firm of Kumar, Prabhu, Patel & Banerjee, LLC (KPPB).
Sonjui L. Kumar is a founding partner of KPPB Law, and a corporate transactional lawyer representing companies in all aspects of corporate law, including cross-border transactions.
Disclaimer: This article is for general information purposes only, and does not constitute legal, tax, or other professional advice.



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