What You Need to Know About Freedom of Speech in the Workplace

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Congratulations! You've survived the most bitterly contested presidential election in recent memory. Never before have two candidates attacked each other on such a personal level.

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This bruising campaign exposed just how divided our country really is. To be sure, the political discourse is far from over. So how do we handle it in the workplace?

I remember once walking through a break room at a supply chain warehouse. One of our employees was using offensive language. I asked him to stop cursing, and he replied "I have freedom of speech in this country."

Well, not really. And definitely not at work.

The Law 

Without going into the nuances of our First Amendment rights, it's fair to say that there are many places where you don't enjoy freedom of speech. Work is one of those places. I checked in with my colleague, employment lawyer Sonja McGill of Bell Nunnally. She explained, "Freedom of speech really isn't even a legal issue in the workplace. Unless you work for the government, you have to abide by the employer's work rules. As long as they are not discriminatory or don't violate the NLRA's rules regarding unionization and concerted protected activity, you have to abide by them."

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This basically means that it's perfectly permissible for an employer to prohibit disruptive conduct, which often happens during political discussions. While the NLRA allows employees to distribute materials in non-work areas during non-work times, it's still perfectly acceptable for employers to have work rules that prohibit cursing, political affiliations, and championing causes in work areas during work time.

Managing Civil Treatment

It really comes down to making sure that we treat each other civilly and with respect. This means that we need to find ways to listen to each other and stay professional at work.

If you're a manager, you need to find the courage to step into disruptive, negative conversations and address them. Acknowledge the employee's right to have an opinion, but also remind them that work isn't the proper venue to express that opinion.

Civil Treatment at Work

Let's take it a step further. Suppose you're in the break room, and one of your peers is expressing their disappointment with the election in a very heated and agitated manner.

You have several choices:

You can ask your supervisor to address the issue.

You can address the issue yourself. This is tricky, though. Political conversations tend to get emotional very quickly. Stay curious, open-minded, and above all, tolerant. You probably won't change the other person's mind, but you might just learn something.

Don't engage in the same behavior that you're complaining about. Regardless of your political affiliation, we can all take Michelle Obama's advice and tell ourselves, "When they go low, we go high."

Civil Treatment in General

But you're bound to run into this behavior anywhere you go in the next months – or even years. So how do we manage it?

In the final week of the campaign, Melania Trump gave a speech during which she said:

"We need to teach our youth American values: kindness, honesty, respect, compassion, charity, understanding, [and] cooperation ... Our culture has gotten too mean and rough."

Wouldn't it be great if we could model that behavior for our children and coworkers? Part of treating each other with respect involves listening and understanding. Even if you can't totally understand or agree with the other person's viewpoint, you can always take a page from Queen Elsa and let it go.

Stronger Together

Democrats and Republicans are more ideologically divided then ever before, which is why this election frustrated and upset so many people.

According to Pew, "Many of those in the center remain on the edges of the political playing field ... while the most ideologically oriented and politically rancorous Americans make their voices heard." The workplace simply isn't the place to take a passionate debate like this. You probably know your coworkers well enough to have an idea of where they stand on certain issues. Don't harangue them with your viewpoints, and don't tolerate being lectured to.

Intuitively, many Americans understand that we need to find a way to come together as a country. One way we can work towards that goal is to respect the office of the presidency, regardless of our personal feelings towards the person occupying it.

We all want a certain level of decorum and professionalism in our elected leaders. Let's role model that behavior ourselves and work together to make sure America stays great.

A version of this article originally appeared on HR Virtuoso.

Liz D'Aloia is the founder of HR Virtuoso.