Turning down the volume on political talk at work

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I hope you and your readers can give me some guidance, because I am at the end of my tether. I am the supervisor of a small department (eight people) that includes a couple of extremely vocal Tea Party activists, three or four "liberal" types, and one or two of us who are more middle-of-the-road.

Ordinarily, who cares, right? But this election seems to be bringing out the ugly in people, and the closer we get to actually voting, the worse it gets. Recently, I had to break up a fistfight -- a fistfight! -- in the break room between one of the right-wingers and another employee who apparently disagreed with him.

In my 26 years in business, I have never seen people so het up about politics, and it is distracting us from work. I wanted to call a meeting and ask everyone to please leave their political opinions in the parking lot, but a colleague told me this would violate employees' First Amendment rights. Should I do it anyway? --Lone Star State

Dear Lone Star: Here's something your well-meaning colleague evidently does not know: When people are at work, on property belonging to a private-sector employer, they have no First Amendment rights.

"The First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech protects individuals only against government action, not against rules made by private entities," says Elise Bloom, a partner and co-chair of the employment law practice at Proskauer Rose in New York City.

"You certainly can legally request that people limit political talk -- or, for that matter, any talk that isn't work-related -- to their own time. You can also ask employees to take down political posters, campaign buttons, bumper stickers and so on, if these are creating a distraction or a disruption."

Craig Annunziata, managing partner at Fisher & Phillips (no relation to yours truly) in Chicago, echoes your sentiments about the contumacious streak this election has brought out in some citizens.

"Never before in 20 years of practicing law have I gotten so many calls from corporate clients wanting to know if it would be all right to ask people to tone down their political talk," Annunziata says.

Bosses often ask him whether they have the right to stop employees from handing out political leaflets at the office.

Talkback: Is there much political talk in your workplace these days? Leave your comments at the bottom of this story.

"Many employers already have anti-solicitation policies that prohibit people from distributing any non-work-related materials in the workplace," Annunziata says.

These policies can be applied easily to campaign literature but you ought to keep your policy consistent.

"If you're going to ban political leaflets, you have to also ban, say, parents' peddling their kids' Girl Scout cookies," says Annunziata.

Managers would also be wise to keep their own political views strictly private. "Any comment you might make, no matter how offhand, on topics like politics, race, religion, age, and so on, can come back to bite you later," says Annunziata.

Religion seems to be a particularly touchy issue. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports an 87% jump in religious-discrimination complaints over the past decade. That's more than 4 times the increase for complaints overall. It's something to keep in mind if the water-cooler chitchat turns to, for example, whether it's a good idea to build an Islamic community center in lower Manhattan.

But back to your question: What to do to keep the political uproar to a minimum? Three steps you could take:

1. Consider a written memo discouraging political talk on company time. Ask your company's attorneys to help you draft it to make sure you don't accidentally run afoul of state or local laws.

2. Adopt a non-solicitation policy that specifically covers campaign materials. If your company already has a policy, remind employees about it. If not, once again, get a labor lawyer to help you draft this document.

One possible pitfall: It's a violation of the National Labor Relations Act to make a non-solicitation policy that is so broad that it interferes with an employee's right to form a union, or with other legal rights employees may have in some states, counties, or towns.

3. Don't overlook email. Most employers now have a written policy against using company email for non-work-related activities -- campaign rally organizing, for instance -- but it can't hurt to remind people that, legally, the company can monitor employees' Web activity.

Of course, in many companies, written policies seem made to be ignored. Still, a few clearly stated rules about political expression at work will give you something to point to next time things get out of hand.

While midterm elections are just a few days away and you may not have enough time to draft a written policy before then, 2012 is just around the corner, and it's sure to be a fiery one. Good luck.

Talkback: Is there much political talk in your workplace these days? Does it ever get contentious enough to interfere with work? Tell us on Facebook, below. To top of page

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