By:   Brendan J. Begley

Now that the first presidential debate has taken place, and as the country heads into the last month of campaigning in this election year, employers should make certain that their personnel policies properly address political activities in the workplace. Such policies should require managers, supervisors, and employees to show respect across political-party lines to avoid internal conflicts. Having and enforcing such policies also may help to diminish the risk of alienating customers who otherwise might find themselves confronted with competing political philosophies when visiting an employer’s establishment.

Regardless of their job, clients and work colleagues typically have different life experiences that influence the way that they approach politics. Consequently, political jokes and partisan articles circulated around the office may be highly upsetting to a number of employees and may well become the source of workplace confrontations. Obviously, being confronted with such an environment may also provoke strong feelings on the part of customers.

Therefore, unless your company is a political action committee, it probably is not a good idea to have a written personnel policy expressly endorsing a particular candidate or political party. Instead, personnel policies should be aimed at limiting management and staff from circulating email or literature in the workplace that is not job related – including messages urging votes or other support for any candidate or political party.

It is very likely that there will be an abundant amount of inflammatory email and internet postings available for circulation in this election cycle. Since the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated laws aimed at restricting campaign contributions, the number of negative ads in this year’s race (on television and radio and circulated via social media) are sure to be very high. And even though California may not be bombarded with such ads concerning the presidential race – at least not as much as Ohio or Florida, since ours is not a battleground state – observers expect plenty of mud-slinging in congressional and local races up and down the West Coast. Such brawls could spill over into the workplace.

In fact, one recent survey by CareerBuilder LLC found that more than 46 percent of employees anticipated discussing this year’s presidential election with co-workers. The survey also indicated that nearly a quarter of employees who had discussed politics on the job found that doing so led to a “heated discussion or fight.” Thus, in addition to having a written policy in place, employers also should consider encouraging supervisors and managers to refresh their understanding of the appropriate way to handle complaints or skirmishes on the job (since conflicts may yet arise despite the existence of a written policy).

Finally, employers who allow employees to wear political badges or clothes depicting candidates or slogans may find themselves having to permit buttons or attire displaying a union message. For more information on that topic, see this blog posting. In any event, prudent employers should consider seeking assistance from legal counsel to draft or update personnel policies that restrict workplace discourse.