Questioning voices: how can employers manage political views in the workplace?

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As the political debate in Britain becomes ever more polarised, Christopher Braganza, a Partner in the Employment and Business Immigration Group at Sheridans, looks at how strongly held views and party politics plays out at work.

The distinctive Question Time music begins in our living room, and I inevitably leave the room. For starters, 10.40 is way past my bedtime. More significantly (for the purposes of this piece), I simply cannot abide other people’s opinions. I frankly rage at their temerity not to understand that – clearly – the correct view on any subject happens to be the one that I myself hold.

Christopher Braganza, a Partner in the Employment and Business Immigration Group at Sheridans.

I suspect I’m not alone. And it does feel, I think, that political debate is ever more polarised. Two recent referendums in the UK have split the electorate down the middle. The election of President Trump has done the same in the United States.

Many on either side don’t just disagree; they simply cannot understand why their opponents possibly think they way that they do.

In the echo chambers of social media, it seems that many consider all who disagree with them as enemies to be destroyed. Discussion is frequently rude, and sometimes descends into (for example) racist, homophobic or misogynistic abuse. There are a disturbing number of threats of violence, particularly against women.

Many have observed that we are realigning our identities into the new political divide. Metropolitan against rural; university degree against those without; a mobile global elite against communities who feel they have been left behind. Perhaps that’s overstated: I don’t know.

But even if there’s some truth to it, the workplace offers a challenge and an opportunity. If we are indeed sorting ourselves out geographically, socially and online to be with the like-minded, the office is somewhere we are potentially forced together with people who might not agree with us.

So what are employers to do? Some suggestions.

It’s unwise, I think, for employers themselves, as a corporate identity, to immerse themselves directly in party politics. It’s one thing to comment in general terms on matters directly affecting the workplace (such as a post-Brexit labour market, or an increased minimum wage). It’s another to use the employer’s position of power to take a party political stand, particularly where this is irrelevant to the business in question.

No-one wants a sanitised workplace where ideas and opinions can’t be respectfully discussed. On the other hand, it’s also invidious for those holding a minority opinion in their workplace to feel belittled and unable to be themselves. Not only could that lead to legal liability, perhaps more importantly it’ll inevitably lead to depression, disillusionment and departure. If you feel unfairly repressed, you’re unlikely to be giving of your best in your work.

Inevitably, the workplace is held to a higher standard of protection for employees expressing political views than in society generally, or the wild west of a social media feed. Broadly, while there’s no specific protection for having (or not having) a particular political belief, many pieces of existing legislation have an impact:

Anti-discrimination laws protecting religion and belief. The Courts have historically been reluctant to protect political beliefs in the same way as religious belief. They have in general been even handed, rejecting claims from an employee who claimed they were dismissed for their Marxist-Socialist beliefs and also from a member of the British National Party. Wearing a poppy or considering that 9/11 and 7/7 were “inside jobs” equally did not qualify.

Unfair dismissal, which requires that an employer show good reason for dismissing an employee on grounds of political belief. In other words the employer is likely to have to show that the employee’s views (or the expression of them) was (for example) causing significant disruption;

The Human Rights Act, which protects freedom of expression;

General laws prohibiting harassment and bullying, for example if the employee suffers psychiatric injury from the treatment of others, and the employer could reasonably have prevented it, the employee is likely to have a claim;

Data protection laws, which in general terms permit an employer only to use employees’ personal data (which could include their social media footprint) for reasons relating to the proper conduct of its business.

What about social media?

Superficially, most of us would say that the views an employee expresses from a personal account and in their own time are none of their employer’s business. It’s an easy distinction to say, but a hard one to operate in practice. Employers are likely to become aware of any controversial comments by an employee on social media. Either managers will be friends/followers of their employee, or a peer is likely to eventually bring it to their attention. In short, the genie’s out of the bottle. There’s no returning to a situation where thoughts are likely to be kept private from those who are determined enough to find them.

So what to do?

As ever, the lawyer’s advice is that it depends. Let’s take an example of an employee who is vociferous on his own social media account in his support for President Trump.

Generally, it’s hard to see how an employee could be fairly criticised for adopting a mainstream political view on personal social media, however much the employer (or the employee’s colleagues) might disagree with them. We might find this employee’s view distasteful. But of itself it is unlikely to justify any sanction against the employee.

The situation might be different of course, if the employee were to go on to express specific support for racist actions, or for sexual assault. You could then see how such actions or opinions might be incompatible with a safe workplace, or one free from discrimination.

The situation might be different again, and the bar lower, if the employer were a charity working predominantly in the Muslim community.

And there’s one thing more. Social and cultural diversity brings benefits in recruitment, performance and reputation. Most employers are at some point on this journey. However, there’s a parallel, less obvious, journey to be made: diversity of opinion. Freedom of speech for those with whom we agree isn’t really much of a freedom at all. Not only is protecting diversity of opinion the right thing to do, corporate history shows that groupthink can eat away at a successful business with deadly results.

We in HR pride ourselves on getting people to listen to what they don’t want to hear. And if we’re serious about diversity, doesn’t it mean living with a few uncomfortable conversations?

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