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VOL. 127 | NO. 62 | Thursday, March 29, 2012

Attorneys Warn Against Workplace Political Talk

By Andy Meek

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Memphis attorney Jeff Weintraub was involved in a case recently that involved an employee who took offense at some political comments her employer made.

Her employer was staunchly opposed to President Barack Obama – and her perception was that it was racially motivated, according to Weintraub, managing partner of the Memphis office of Fisher & Phillips LLP.

Things snowballed from there. The employee quit her job and filed a charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Weintraub said that was dismissed, but then she filed a lawsuit.

“That eventually went away, but I think it all suggests a problem with immersing one’s self in strong political opinions at work,” Weintraub said.

Free speech concerns are sometimes a tricky issue when it comes to workplace considerations. The hot-button nature of politics coupled with a presidential election that’s less than eight months away – but which will hinge on controversial topics such as health care and taxes – can compound things.

That’s according to Weintraub, who said he’s seen a similar discussion dissolve into fisticuffs at a client’s business.

“I think our issue is that when people talk politics, sometimes it becomes animated and even emotional,” he said. “This is one of those upcoming elections when – there are people who are very strongly opinionated on each side of the political spectrum right now. I’ve heard a lot of emotions.

“It’s the going over the edge in the workplace that I see as a problem. I don’t see it as a real First Amendment issue. I don’t see really any real workplaces where management is saying you are not free to discuss politics. What I do see is if there are no limits, things can get out of hand and become disruptive.”

Other Memphis attorneys who deal with employment issues agree. Robert Meyers, of Ford & Harrison LLP, said unless the business is somehow tied to politics, employers and employees should take care not to let political discussions create divisions at work.

Lang Wiseman, a partner at Wiseman Bray PLLC, said there’s an even bigger worry than that.

“Politics can be a passionate topic that can lead to heated – if not disruptive – incidents and feelings,” he said. “In fact, political discussion can at times even become infused with notions of religion, race and sex that can create actual legal risks for the employers. That’s not to say that every perceived slight or discomfort in the workplace gives rise to a legal cause of action, but just to note that there is a careful balancing act that employers have to stay on top of.”

Meyers also noted the possibility that an employee who disagrees politically with an employer may look suspiciously at any employment actions taken against them after they voice their disagreement, which is another employment law concern.

“Although, I would not recommend a per se prohibition against political discussions, I do recommend that the employer monitor the level of discussions and, if warranted, step in to assure your employees that no matter what their political views are, all employees will be treated and be required to treat each other with dignity and respect,” Meyers said.

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