From morning news to your Instagram feed to catching up with friends, political issues are seemingly inescapable. Election season brings countless charged conversation topics that can polarize the friendliest practice teams. Even individuals who share the same political ideologies can differ on issues, expressions and comfort levels in discussing them. Instead of letting snide asides and volatile debates impede productivity and create potential issues, practice owners can take the lead in asking patients and staff to leave political discussions at the door. By establishing boundaries and de-escalating tension, conflicts between staff and patients can be minimized.
The Dentists Insurance Company’s Risk Management Advice Line frequently receives calls from dentists who are unsure how to handle uneasy exchanges among staff members or between staff and patients. Advice Line analysts provide guidance to mitigate discomfort, stress, distraction and hostility — and the associated risks — of talking about politics and other sensitive topics that can enter workplace discussions.
A recent caller related that political discussions stemming from remarks about racial issues had been causing friction in the dental practice. One staff member expressed support for a candidate based upon their view that the candidate fought to ease racial tensions and unrest. Another staff member then felt compelled to bring up the candidate’s voting history on legislation in these areas. The conversation quickly escalated, each staff member becoming increasingly entrenched in their position and loudly arguing their viewpoint. The analyst advised the caller to let employees know that political topics create tension and unease; therefore, the office has established a policy that employees must refrain from having political discussions while at work, as it can make others uncomfortable or upset.
If facing similar issues in your practice, The Dentists Insurance Company recommends using language such as, “Teammates get upset when discussions on the job delve into political or religious topics because everyone, while entitled to their opinion, can have very strong and differing points of view. That is why our office has established a policy regarding professional conduct in our practice. I am asking all of you to curtail any further discussion of politics or religious beliefs while at work to avoid making others uncomfortable or pressured to discuss topics that are not appropriate in the office.”
Another caller was concerned that a front office employee was using headphones to listen to political news during the workday. While patients couldn’t hear the radio program itself, the employee was sharing her own commentary and politically charged response to the news, which was making some patients uncomfortable. The analyst encouraged the dentist to share her concerns directly with the employee, referring to and reminding the employee of the specific policies in the employee manual.
So, how can you create boundaries and keep your workplace free from potential claims of a hostile work environment by employees and an overly familiar level of communication by patients? Start by understanding your rights and responsibilities as an employer:
- Employees do not have the right to freedom of speech in the workplace.
A private, at-will employer may have a policy in place that requires employees to maintain a politically neutral workplace. Note that employers may not limit employees from concerted activity discussing issues like wages, hours or working conditions. If, for example, a staff member voiced support of a certain candidate because of their stand on a specific labor issue, that speech would be protected. They may also discuss unlawful conduct in the workplace. But employees of private businesses do not have the freedom or right to express racist, sexist or other discriminatory comments when such comments would constitute violations of harassment and discrimination laws.
- Political affiliation is not a protected class under federal law, but state political discrimination laws vary. Employers are allowed to take action when an employee’s expression of political views affects job performance or that of their co-workers. However, some states do protect employees from certain types of political discrimination, such as hiring or firing simply because of an employee’s civic activities. For example, in California, Labor Code § 1101 prohibits employers from having “any rule, regulation or policy” (1) forbidding or preventing employees from engaging or participating in politics or running for office; or (2) “controlling or directing or tending to control or direct the political activities or affiliations of employees.” That statute prohibits action against employees for political activities that do not directly affect job performance.
- If one employee is uncomfortable, the work environment may be hostile. While hostile may seem like a term that’s open for interpretation, a hostile work environment is defined as “unwelcome or offensive behavior in the workplace, which causes one or more employees to feel uncomfortable, scared or intimidated in their place of employment.” That means general unpleasantness or rudeness isn’t illegal. As an employer, it’s your responsibility to ensure that your employees have a safe workplace environment, one without fear of harassment or discrimination, so you must set rules, enforce policies and be responsive when issues do arise.
Don’t wait to take action. Instead, establish expectations and clarify boundaries:
- Consider creating a formal “politically neutral workplace” policy.
As a private employer, you may set rules around political talk the same way you would other behaviors that would impede practice morale, patient comfort and productivity. For example, you can add a policy to your employee handbook that discourages politically charged discussions and a dress code policy that prohibits wearing apparel with political slogans or symbols.
- Empathize with employees but be consistent in your response.
The current environment and the constant stream of political news can weigh on employees, and they often look to “vent” with their trusted team members. An emotional reaction to what is going on in the world is natural — but it should not affect or interfere with the objective of the practice, which is to provide the best care possible to patients. Remind your employees that the workday is an opportunity to leave these external stressors outside the practice walls and concentrate on what they do best: helping patients and their team members.
Take time to understand your state laws relating to politics in the workplace, document and clearly state your office’s policies and intervene quickly and decisively if discussions become heated. While it may seem impossible to leave political discourse at the door, you can model and build a safe atmosphere where quality dentistry remains the focus of your entire team.
TDIC’s Risk Management Advice Line is a benefit to TDIC policyholders. To schedule a consultation with an experienced risk management analyst, visit tdicinsurance.com/RMconsult or call 800.733.0633. For Risk Management guidance in Idaho, Oregon or Washington, call 800.452.0504.