As we near Election Day and continue to entertain ourselves with Presidential debates, the topic of politics will likely find its way to the water cooler and may spark some mini-debates inside the office. Is this acceptable in the workplace? Maybe/ maybe not. Here is our 101 version of Politics in the Workplace:
For Employees Who Do Not Participate in Early Voting
Fun Fact: Lines at polling locations can be long. Some states have laws that require employers to offer paid time off to vote in an election. North Carolina is not one of these states and our state laws do not address this issue. Technically, employers in North Carolina can require employees to use paid or unpaid leave to vote in the election. The question then becomes whether an employer should actually do this. That answer depends on what type of corporate culture you want for your workplace. It is a “best practice” to allow employees a reasonable amount of paid time off to vote in an election. This doesn't need to be half a day - it could be only an hour or two and should come with some flexibility when there are surprisingly long lines or equipment malfunctions that cause a delay in the voting process. Also, if you do not have a Voting Policy in your handbook, now may be an excellent time to make this addition.
Federal laws also stay (mostly) quiet about employee voting during the workday; however, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has quite a bit to say about these topics in the workplace.
The NLRB & Election Season:
The NLRB enforces a federal law called the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The NLRA has various employee protections for private sector employees regardless of whether or not the employee is a member of a labor union. Often NLRB decisions can be seen as a bit outrageous but the NLRA does say this in Section 7:
"[Employees]... have the right to engage in other 'concerted activities' for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection."
"Concerted activity" is a broadly defined term (like every other legal term) but it essentially includes any activity conducted for the mutual benefit and aid of an entire workforce. For example, statements regarding workplace conditions made to one's colleagues is typically protected under Section 7 (above). This may also include statements like "I'm voting for Hillary because of her position on equal pay - something needed here." See how the election may come into play?
As always, there are numerous caveats to the general rule. Employees should be mindful of politically-tinted comments and jokes that could be seen as harassing. For example, circulating a meme about Trump's latest comments on "locker room talk" could be seen as offensive. Similarly, comments regarding Hillary's appearance or femininity could also be seen as harassing. As funny as the two candidates may be during debates, it may be safest to not repeat anything either candidate has said.
The Dos and Don’ts of Election Talk in the Workplace:
Employers should consider reminding employees of the company’s social media policy just to make sure political discussions stay on personal social media accounts as opposed to corporate social media accounts (unless the NLRA applies and the comment is protected concerted activity). Employers should also recommend to employees that election talk may not be the best for morale, could harass or insult employees with opposing views, and may harm workplace efficiency. What your employees do on their own time is their call but Employers can at least drop hints as to what may be interpreted as inappropriate in the workplace. Just keep in mind that the NLRA will also apply so protected concerted activities must be permitted.
To summarize, Employers should consider doing the following this Election season:
1. Allow Employees reasonable time during the workday to vote.
2. Encourage Employees to refrain from talking (or joking) about the election.
3. Update or implement a voting policy in the employment handbook.
4. Update your social media policy in the employment handbook (or remind employees of what it says).
5. Refrain from punishing employees who are engaging in concerted activity protected under the NLRA.
This is very general advice considering how off-beat the NLRB can sometimes be. If you want a more thorough analysis, give us a call and we'll chat!
One last thing: you can find out more about your polling location for Nov. 8th here and can learn more about voting and early voting in NC here.