General election 2019: when politics and work mix

Nigel Farage launches the Brexit party's general election campaign last week. Photo: ComposedPix / Shutterstock

How can employers prevent employees from electioneering at work? Should the workforce be banned from highlighting their political allegiances in the workplace? What if colleagues argue over opposing political views? With a general election taking place on 12 December, we look at five things that can go wrong when politics and the workplace mix.

1. Stopping employees from political campaigning at work

Employers are on solid ground if they ban staff from political campaigning during working hours.

They could take disciplinary action if an employee is caught undertaking non-work activities, such as political campaigning, when they should be working.

The same goes for the use of an employer’s equipment for party-political business. For instance, an employer could take disciplinary action against an employee who uses a work printer to churn out hundreds of election leaflets.

An employee who is prevented from political campaigning at work may argue that their human right to “freedom of expression” is being impinged. However, as long as employers strike a reasonable balance, they are unlikely to breach human rights laws.

A complete ban on mentioning politics at work is unrealistic, and a keen interest among staff of current affairs can be a good thing. Any ban on politics at work should be applied consistently, and not limited to particular political parties.

2. Employees are free to express political views outside work

Outside working hours, employers are much more limited in the control that they can exert over an employee’s political activities.

The Human Rights Act becomes relevant if an employer is seeking to control what employees are doing outside work. When it comes to politics, the rights to freedom of assembly and association, freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience and religion are relevant.

A good rule of thumb is that employers can control employees’ actions only when they are working, or where their actions have a direct impact on their employment.

For example, the employer could take action if the employee’s political activities threaten to bring the employer into disrepute.

3. Preventing political symbols being displayed at work

Generally, employers can enforce appropriate standards of dress in the workplace, including prohibiting items displaying support for a political party or cause.

This is particularly important for staff in public-facing roles: organisations will want to avoid creating an impression that they endorse a particular party or political view.

Employees who are prevented from displaying a political symbol (for example, on a T-shirt, poster or badge) might claim that they are being discriminated against because of their “philosophical beliefs”.

However, employers can rest assured that discrimination claims under the Equality Act based on philosophical beliefs are rare and difficult to win. This is partly because there is a stringent five-stage test (as set out in Grainger plc v Nicholson) before a belief, including political opinion, is considered to be a philosophical belief under the Equality Act.

As with a ban on staff campaigning at work, a consistent approach applied to all staff will also help in the event of a tribunal claim.

4. Increased risk of politically motivated harassment

Employers need to be alert to members of staff harassing colleagues via political beliefs.

In particular, Brexit has led to the increased risk of harassment against some nationalities, particularly Eastern European workers.

Comments to foreign workers about Brexit can have a political edge, and can lead to complaints of racial harassment. For example, telling an Eastern European worker that they should “go home”, or telling them that they are no longer welcome in the UK, could constitute racial harassment.

Employers should also remember that the complaint may not necessarily come from the individual to whom the offensive comments are directed. It is possible for an employee who overhears offensive comments to complain of racial harassment.

If an employer receives such a complaint, it should follow its grievance procedure and take disciplinary action against the offender.

5. Rules on political activities at work

Employers that are concerned about these issues in the run-up to the general election, and during the continued Brexit drama beyond the election, can have in place a policy on political activities in the workplace.

The policy could ban employees from:

  • campaigning in the course of employment;
  • using the employer’s resources to assist with political activities;
  • expressing political views to customers, clients or suppliers;
  • attempting to foist particular political opinions onto colleagues or other customers, clients or suppliers;
  • displaying political symbols;
  • acting in a way that suggests that the organisation supports a particular political group or cause; and
  • acting in a way that could amount to harassment or bullying, for example mocking a colleague’s political opinions.

The policy can also deal with political activities outside work. For example, the policy could ban an employee from mentioning the organisation’s name alongside any political statement or opinion, and warn staff not to bring the organisation into disrepute via their political activities outside work.

Stephen Simpson

About Stephen Simpson

Stephen Simpson is a principal employment law editor at XpertHR. His areas of responsibility include the policies and documents and law reports. After obtaining a law degree and training to be a solicitor, he moved into publishing, initially with Butterworths. He joined XpertHR in its early days in 2001.
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