Political speech can be facilitated at the office, HR just needs to insert guardrails

It’s when conversations slide down the path of bullying and harassment that things get hairy.
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Hannah Minn

· 5 min read

In a polarized nation, election cycles can conjure all sorts of conflict and tension between colleagues. While workers might not stump for their preferred candidates in the office, they do, on occasion, reveal their political leanings to colleagues, often without being asked: Earlier this year, an HR professional recalled to HR Brew an incident during the 2012 presidential election, in which an employee adorned his desk with Barack Obama-themed toilet paper. Their colleagues found the act inflammatory, and HR had to intervene.

Following the 2022 midterms, HR pros may have had to reprise the familiar role of political mediator as issues such as abortion, immigration, and the economy seized headlines, and perhaps some of the chatter in Slack.

Navigating political speech at work can be tricky, experts told HR Brew, as HR needs to toe the line between granting employees freedom and preventing potential damage wrought by rhetorical mudslinging. There are also legal issues at play, Vanessa Matsis-McCready, associate general counsel and director of HR for professional employer organization Engage PEO, explained to HR Brew. “It becomes very complicated if you’re talking about something that could be [considered] a working condition,” she said.

To avoid having the office descend into a chaotic town hall meeting, sources advised creating highly deliberate and structured avenues for employees to share their feelings—within limits. As younger workers are increasingly inclined to work for employers that espouse similar political convictions, enforcing an apolitical environment might do more harm than good, Roxanne Petraeus, the CEO of Ethena, a compliance training platform, told HR Brew.

“It can negatively impact a lot of employees, many of whom have historically been excluded from the C-suite,” Patraeus explained via email.

Make the rules. Establishing boundaries for political speech in the workplace is within the purview of employers, Matsis-McCready explained. “There’s a misconception that the First Amendment applies to private employees in the workplace…that does mean that employers, to a degree, can ban political speech in the workplace.”

There are caveats that complicate expressly banning anything deemed “political.” As politicians who deride “playing politics” might tell you, the definition of “political” can be murky. Topics that gain traction on the national political stage—such as paid family leave—can crop up as workplace issues, Matsis-McCready said. Any effort to stymie discussion of such an issue could violate the National Labor Relations Act, which prohibits employers from interfering with employees’ right to “improve terms and conditions of employment.”

“That’s the litmus test: Is something considered a working condition? And if it’s not, then employers have a lot more leeway in what they can do,” she said.

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Blanket policies will likely backfire, so organizations should champion a fluid approach that adjusts to shifting headwinds, Petraeus told HR Brew. “There’s not a checklist—like do five things, and here’s how you can perfectly talk about politics at the office and never piss off anyone. It doesn’t work like that,” she said.

HR as facilitator. During the summer of 2020, as civil unrest gripped the country, Neha Khurram was working as a program manager for recruiting services at As an ERG lead, Khurram helped facilitate virtual breakout rooms where employees could share their thoughts about the events unfolding around them with the company’s head of people.

“At the end of the day, it’s more about just giving people the space to just air out how they feel in a non-judgmental area,” she said.

Khurram’s ERG also referred employees to a private internal Slack channel, where they could share online resources for safely attending protests. In doing so, she said the company was able to foster a sense of trust, though initially, “some [employees] people were afraid” to discuss attending rallies.

Disagreements happen, but it’s important for HR to understand that debate can become bullying, Matsis-McCready explained, especially when words go from mere self-expression to denigrating others. If concerned about disagreements snowballing into something more insidious, she suggested that HR ask: “Is it just political speech in the workplace where it’s in accordance with our policies? Or is this person potentially harassing other people because they don’t agree with them?”

Though the lines about what constitutes political speech can be blurry, it helps when leaders can harness their own experiences to humanize the politicized, according to Petraeus. “I’m a CEO but I also happen to be an Army veteran and a mom who has miscarried. I don’t consider it political for my company to celebrate Veterans Day…nor do I think it’s political to make space for employees to discuss reproductive freedom,” she said.

Above all, when it comes to fostering a dynamic in which employees feel empowered to speak up in constructive ways, Petraeus urged HR to “create the policies…but it’s more about the company culture. You want to build the expectations and norms.”

And with those norms internalized by employees, the office is less likely to mirror a primetime cable news debate.—SB

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @SammBlum on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Sam for his number on Signal.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.