Jo Stubbs, XpertHR

How to manage political tensions in the workplace this election day

With a general election taking place on 12 December, we look at five employment issues when politics and work mix and how employers can avoid tensions in the workplace.

A new YouGov survey found that a quarter of people have had a row with someone over the forthcoming general election, and 48% have had a row over Brexit. Politics can cause issues in the workplace with people of opposing political views starting conversations that can escalate into arguments or even harassment.

Below we highlight five employment issues that can arise when politics and work mix and set out what can be done to manage these situations during election time and the rest of the year:

Stopping employees from political campaigning at work Employers are on solid ground if they ban staff from political campaigning during working hours. They could take disciplinary action if they catch employees undertaking non-work activities, such as political campaigning, when they should be working. The same goes for the use of work equipment for party-political business, for example using a work printer to produce election leaflets.

However, having a complete ban on mentioning politics at work is unrealistic and a keen interest among staff in current affairs can be a good thing.

Expressing political views outside work Outside working hours employers are much more limited in the control that they can exert over employees’ political activities. The Human Rights Act 1998 becomes relevant if employers seek to control what employees are doing outside work. A good rule of thumb is that employers can control employees’ actions only when they are working, or where their actions have a direct impact on their employment, for example where their actions threaten to bring the employer into disrepute.

Preventing political symbols being displayed at work Generally, employers can enforce appropriate standards of dress in the workplace, including prohibiting items such as t-shirts or badges displaying support for a political party or cause. This will be particularly important for staff in public-facing roles as organisations will want to avoid creating an impression that they endorse a particular party or political view.

Employees who are prevented from displaying a political symbol might claim that they are being discriminated against because of their “philosophical beliefs”. However, discrimination claims based on “philosophical beliefs” are not easy to win - there is a stringent five-stage test before a belief, including political opinion, is considered to be a “philosophical belief” under the Equality Act.

Increased risk of politically motivated harassment Employers need to be alert to members of staff harassing colleagues via political beliefs. In particular, Brexit has led to increased harassment against some nationalities, particularly Eastern European workers. Employers should also remember that complaints may not necessarily come from the individuals to whom the offensive comments are directed. It is also possible for an employee who overhears offensive comments to complain of racial harassment.

Guidelines on political activities at work With divided views over Brexit set to continue, whatever the outcome of this general election, organisations may want to consider establishing a clear code of conduct regarding political activity in their workplace. XpertHR offers model wording to help employers create their own policy.

Politics is always going to be a contentious subject, so it’s important that employers are aware of what the issues could be and how to manage them. Setting things out in a clear policy and drawing this to employees’ attention means everyone knows what the boundaries are and the possible consequences of unacceptable behaviour.

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