How to Handle Politics in 2020

Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog LLP
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Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog LLP

The past eight months have been unique to say the least.  In a matter of weeks, employees started working from home, businesses drastically changed their business models, and employers figured out how to balance health concerns, schools closing, federal and state unemployment, and federal paid leave.  On top of all of that, it is also an election year.  With mail-in voting already underway, televised debates occurring weekly, and political conversation ramping up, here are some quick tips on how to handle politics in the workplace in 2020. 

Voting

In North Carolina, early voting starts on October 15, 2020 and continues through October 31, 2020.  Election Day is slated for November 3, 2020, and voting by mail has already started. As a first step, employers need to determine whether their policies permit time off to vote.  North Carolina employers are not required to give employees time off to vote, but if an employer’s policy permits employees time off to vote, then this policy needs to be equally applied to all employees regardless of political affiliation.  Also, though there is no law requiring that an employer provide its employees time off to vote, it is against the law for an employer to threaten or discharge an employee based on how they voted or didn’t vote.

The Workplace

This is now a good time to review your employee handbook to determine what appropriate conversation in the office looks like and what employees are allowed to post on the workplace message board.  If your office has a message board (virtual or otherwise), does your employee handbook allow all messages as long as they are not intimidating or harassing?  Sending out company-wide emails about what is expected as far as employee conduct, conversation, and use of company materials/property will save headaches in the future.  

Also, talk to your management team now.  Discuss what types of conversation and dialogue are okay in the office.  Though “political affiliation” is not a protected class under North Carolina or federal law, there can often be protected status undertones in political discussion, and your management and human resources team need to be on the lookout for that.  For example, if each time one of your Hispanic employees walks into the office, other employees chant “Build the wall! Build the wall!” even though this is tied to a specific political ideology, there are obviously racial undertones that could be actionable under Title VII and other applicable laws.

The Takeaways

  • Decide how you want to handle requests for time off for voting.
  • As the employer, resist the urge to engage in political discussions or otherwise risk seeming biased toward or against certain employees.  Odds are you have employees on both sides of the political spectrum.
  • Establish your level of tolerance for political discussions among employees, and be ready to intervene if necessary.

* Note that rules regarding political speech may differ for public employers.  Those considerations are outside the scope of this article.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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