Political campaigning in the workplace

Politics and campaigning have been all over the news recently. Activity will only increase in the months leading up to the General Election in May…

With this month’s local council and European elections, politics and campaigning have been all over the news recently. Activity will only increase in the months leading up to the General Election in May 2015. As we get closer to the election, employees will undoubtedly be talking about the big issues and discussing politics in general in the workplace. Participation may even extend to certain employees being actively engaged in campaigning for a political party or in relation to a discrete issue.  So what are the issues facing employers in the run-up to elections and how should they be tackled? 

Employees’ political beliefs

An employee’s political beliefs have traditionally not been protected by discrimination legislation, with membership of a political party being defined as neither a “religion” nor a “belief” for the purposes of the Equality Act.

Recent case law, however, has extended the definition of “belief” in the Equality Act to include certain quasi-political views, with Tribunals finding that a belief in climate change, democratic socialism, or even the ‘higher purpose’ of public service broadcasting, could be capable of being protected. Most importantly the European court of Human Rights in the case of Redfearn v United Kingdom declared that the UK must change the law to protect those employees who are dismissed for their membership of a political party.

Indeed, in June 2013, in response to this Judgment the period of qualifying required to bring an Unfair Dismissal claim was removed where the principal reason for dismissal is the employee’s political belief or affiliation. This does not mean that the dismissal will be automatically unfair, simply that the employee will be protected from day one of their employment.

You must therefore be particularly careful when considering dismissing or taking disciplinary action on the basis of an employee’s political affiliations – no matter how ‘offensive’ or incompatible with a desired business ethos they might seem. There is a distinction, however, between an employee simply holding a political view and that view manifesting itself in campaigning or proselytising. In the latter case, you have more leeway to act.

Campaigning in the workplace

Political campaigning in the workplace can take many forms, from an employee passionately discussing the issues with a co-worker, to the handing out of leaflets. From the wearing of badges and the putting up of posters, to the organisation of meetings and debates.

In the face of this, an employer obviously cannot reasonably expect to be able to enforce a complete ban on its employees ever discussing politics in the workplace, but it is certainly reasonable for an employer to expect its workers to be able to carry out their normal duties untroubled by the more politically-minded members of the workforce.

The general position, therefore, is that you should not be afraid to act to prevent an employee from disrupting the workplace with his or her political campaigning. If, for example, an employee’s leafleting is disrupting the office, or if this employee is simply engaged in campaigning when they should be working, you are entitled to ask that employee to stop. Failure to heed such a request may ultimately become a formal disciplinary issue if the employee continues to interrupt the normal operation of the workplace.

Harassment

Similarly, you are well within your rights to intervene if an employee is harassing a co-worker, particularly if that harassment may be discriminatory in nature. Any sort of bullying or aggressive campaigning could certainly result in disciplinary action.

This may be more of an issue depending on the nature of the employee’s political affiliation. Certain issues and policies are likely to be more controversial – and therefore more liable to cause offence – than others. Issues such as immigration, maternity rights, foreign policy, and the recent legalisation of gay marriage are all currently very contentious and there is the possibility that discussion of such issues could cause offence to certain sections of the workforce. Whereas it would be impractical for employers to order an outright ban on any discussion of these hot topics, managers should be able to spot the difference between a lively discussion during a break and an example of bullying or harassment, either under the Equality Act or otherwise. Political expression is no defence to an allegation of discriminatory harassment and you should not be afraid to act on any example of genuinely offensive speech. Where any formal complaint of harassment is received it should be dealt with promptly in line with workplace procedures. Indeed, any informal expression of unease or discomfort from an employee exposed to another’s political views should be addressed as swiftly and sensitively as possible.

Social media

You must be extra vigilant in your communication as an employer with clients and the public. Broadly speaking most organisations will wish to remain impartial during elections for fear that taking a partisan stance on any issue might alienate a portion of your customers or client base. Even the most innocuous tweet or message board post on the organisation’s account, such as congratulating a particular party or candidate on an election win, will inevitably reflect on that organisation. Any corporate communications that ‘take a line’ on a contentious current affairs issue have the potential to bring the business into disrepute. IT and marketing departments should therefore be well-briefed to ensure that they keep politics and campaigning out of company communications. Contributions by members of staff to external publications or social media channels should be carefully monitored.

But what about an employee’s personal social media interactions? You should not be afraid to make employees aware that, should they make reference to their employer in any social media profile, they are then effectively acting as ambassadors for you on-line. Employees should be warned to be very careful when posting their political views online, particularly if the organisation’s identity is readily apparent. It would be wise to ask employees to include a caveat that views expressed on social media are solely their own personal opinions.

What to take away

There is a key distinction between employees holding political opinions and acting on them in the workplace. You should always proceed with caution when taking action against an employee for holding certain political views – no matter how much you may disagree with them. Disciplinary action should only really be considered when an employee acting on those beliefs starts to affect the organisation as a whole or adversely impact on their colleagues.

There is no problem with producing a policy that prohibits political campaigning in the office, although it is always best to make sure that any such policy takes a common sense approach. You should not hesitate, however, to take action against bullying and harassment or to be more prescriptive regarding the content of your own social media feeds and publications, as well as in warning employees to take care with their personal communications online.

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