A subset of my work these days deals with the delicate area of political discussions in a toasty hot election year. The question comes up, “How can we provide direction to our employees while also respecting their rights of free speech? We can’t afford to be seen as a Republican or a Democrat company.”
While I’m certain there is no perfect solution, I think there are some guiding principles which can be used to navigate these difficult waters.
What is your track record? If your organization has not wandered into political matters previously you can first explain that history to anyone pushing a viewpoint at work. Water cooler conversations to social media posts can veer into heated territory and the distinction comes down to “what hat is the employee wearing?” If they are at work or presenting themselves to the outside world as a representative of their employer, then being mindful of political commentary comes with the territory. Which brings us to the next point.
The connection between our paycheck and what we say: As part of employee onboarding and yearly training it’s not a bad idea to remind employees about their role as an extension of the company’s brand and the need to maintain a respectful work atmosphere. Think of it this way – if those around them see them as the “living, breathing representative of the company” then they know they carry an extra level of responsibility. The higher up the chain of command, the more this can play a part in the professional responsibility that comes with the job title.
What about freedom of speech? One of the great things about this country are the freedoms we enjoy. Many people will reference freedom of speech in this conversation and, like all freedoms, free speech comes with limits. The first one I often site is the fact that WE ALL have freedom of speech, so if you are adamant about being heard, just know everyone else has that same right. (Sometimes I say it’s not just about speaking, but listening as well.) Further, if an employee would like a workplace where political stands are part of the culture, there are places where that is the norm. But, it is not something that any one employee or a group of employees can insist on when the effort is to mingle the brand with political parties.
Listen, this election year is likely to result in more than the normal amount of discussion and possible workplace conflict. It may also cause brand-related issues for some companies. If I can help, please let me know and I hope these points can provide food for thought. Having a plan, communicating clearly and getting in front of issues always provides you a better chance for success.
Cary Pfeffer is the founder of ClearComm Consulting, www.clear-comm.net, a Phoenix, AZ-based communications consulting firm which is helping people tell their story. He works with clients to make the most of their media and live audience communication. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.