Employment & Labour

Create rules to cover political discussions at work: Marshall

By Tony Poland, AdvocateDaily.com Associate Editor

Employers must be very clear on policy when it comes to dealing with personal and political views in the workplace, says Toronto employment and human rights lawyer Kevin Marshall.

The federal election can bring with it the appetite to discuss politics, and failing to have guidelines at work could lead to problems down the line, says Marshall, principal of Kevin Marshall Personal Injury and Employment Law.

“It’s a tricky thing for a company to grapple with,” he tells AdvocateDaily.com. “They must be very careful. I always recommend that guidelines be in place, in writing, well before the election — and better yet, between elections.

“As a general rule, there can and must be a wide scope to allow for political expression.”

Marshall says we live in a “politicized environment these days,” and that the issue can be even more challenging to navigate because what one person may find offensive may simply be a difference of opinion to another.

A company’s core beliefs also come into play, he says.

Using the election as an example, Marshall says it wouldn’t be acceptable for someone from the Conservative Party to announce that they believe the Green Party platform makes more sense than their own.

“If political views are expressed in such a way as to challenge the company’s core beliefs, which have been clearly articulated by the organization in question, such expressions become problematic,” he says. “On the other hand, if no guidelines were put in place ahead of time, then the employee can defensibly say they were not aware they were doing anything wrong.”

Having diverse political beliefs is not the issue, Marshall says. Rather, it is more about how they are expressed. Simply espousing a political opinion to co-workers is acceptable behaviour as long as it is not communicated in an offensive manner, he explains.

Bringing negative attention to a company can also lead to repercussions, Marshall says, giving the example of a man who made sexist comments to a television news crew after a sporting event.

“Even though he didn’t reference the name of the company — and was speaking as a fan and private citizen — when it came to light where he worked, the organization promptly fired him. That would be an example of where a company is justified to take immediate action because their brand is being besmirched.”

While terminating the employee could be seen as unfair since the incident did not occur in a workplace context, it can happen, he says, although the man in the example was later rehired after an arbitration hearing.

When it comes to political expression, an organization must ensure its workers are aware of what is acceptable behaviour and what can lead to consequences — not only violations of the law, but also threats to peace in the workplace, Marshall says.

“If a company does not wish to run the risk of questionable political expression, they must very clear with their employees,” he says. “You have to put it in writing.”

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