As the election debate gets going and politics receives almost blanket coverage on the television and the internet, it is likely to dominate the public agenda until 6 May and beyond – but what if it begins to encroach on the workplace?
Politics in the workplace: employers’ top five questions
In the public sector, many posts are politically restricted, and employees are duty-bound to remain politically neutral at work. But do private sector employers have the right to impose bans on employees expressing political views in the workplace?
What if employees take it even further and start campaigning for a particular political party, with the risk that they will offend colleagues who hold different political views?
Draw clear lines
Graham White, HR director at Westminster City Council, says that employers have a right to outline the appropriate behaviours expected from employees – but this should not overlook their rights under to express themselves under the Human Rights Act.
“We need to balance the need to allow our staff the right to express themselves while ensuring this is done in a manner that is neither offensive nor inappropriate,” he says.
Philip Hodges, associate at employment law firm, Halliwells, says the matter should be treated like any other disciplinary issue: if an employee’s behaviour is disrupting other people, then they can be disciplined by line managers.
“If anything you start to do disrupts people doing what they are paid to do, the employer is within their rights to put a stop to it and address it in the same way as any other potential disciplinary matter. If they are promoting a political party and it is interfering with their duties it can be addressed in the same way as anything else,” says Hodges.
Employers do have the right to ban electioneering, such as distributing political leaflets or promoting candidates, in the workplace, adds White.
“In principle an employer does have the right to ban electioneering in the workplace. The key issue here is defining electioneering. An employer is perfectly entitled to ban any form of electioneering on the premises where this is clearly speech-making or displaying or handing out leaflets.”
However, says Hodges that such a strategy will not be necessary in most workplaces. “A policy banning political activity would be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. By way of guidance, some sort of memo or e-mail stating that it would be to the benefit of all that you leave politics out of the workplace is fine. But it also must state that if anybody has strong feelings about this, they should contact HR,” says Hodges.
Get HR involved
Giving employees the option to contact HR would prevent them being able to claim discrimination under the Human Rights Act at a tribunal, says Hodges.
Case law in this matter is, however, unclear following the Nicholson v Grainger case, which last year accepted environmentalism as a belief. This decision was upheld at an Employment Appeal Tribunal earlier this year.
Although Hodges says that in many cases, complainants would struggle to argue that political beliefs should be treated in the same way as religious beliefs, the case does open the door for litigation if employees are not treated fairly. “The potential for litigation is there,” he warns.
But what if employees are expressing support for more extreme political parties, such as the BNP?
In his review of racism in schools, published last month, former chief inspector of schools Maurice Smith said that banning teachers from joining the BNP was not necessary because levels of racism are low.
The Association of Chief Prison Officers and HM Prison Service have already banned BNP members from joining their ranks.
However, HR and legal experts say that this may not be appropriate in other work settings.
White explains: “Such actions could not simply be predicated on a particular political affiliation. The example of police officers results from the different employment relationship a constable holds and as such is not a natural comparator with a more general employment relationship.”
However, he adds that any expression of racist views should be dealt with robustly. “Where the display of political adornments or expression of political views intimidates or harasses any section of employees, management is empowered to remove the reason for the offence,” he says.
But White adds: “This is unlikely to include the frustration of an employment contract unless the individual fails to comply with the management request.”
Vanessa Robinson, head of HR practice and development at the CIPD, agrees: “If such views are voiced in the workplace, or associated with the organisation where the employee works, they could have potential negative impact on both other employees and the reputation of the organisation itself.
“We suggest that organisations need to have in place clear policies setting out what is acceptable and managers then need to stay alert to views and opinions of employees in the work place and to deal with them on a case-by-case basis as needed.”
Clearly, the election process could have an impact on workplaces across the country – and HR departments must be prepared.