Can you ban political chat?

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The election campaign is now in full swing and employees are increasingly voicing their opinions but when disagreements arise, a once cohesive workplace can quickly feel divided – so what can HR do?

Andy Bell is the principal of law firm Bell & Co – he says employers should be wary of restricting political chat as it could land them in legal trouble.

“An employer cannot ban campaigning or showing support for a political party, as this is unlawful discrimination under the Human Rights Act,” he tells HRD. “This concerns the right to freedom of expression and opinion,” he explains.

Bell points to a 1998 case – Transportation Auckland Corporation ltd v The Proceedings Commissioner – in which a bus driver handed out literature published by the Socialist Workers Party.

The literature directly criticised the company’s chief executive for his restructuring policies and encouraged involvement in strikes – as a result, the employee received two warnings.

However, the High Court held that the pamphlets were the expression of a political opinion and ruled the company had unlawfully discriminated against him by giving him warnings.

While employers can’t ban campaigning or conversation, Bell says organisations are well within their rights to set expectations of behaviour and conduct.

“A policy document could outline the requirement for employees to respect different political opinions, and ensure that they are aware of when their opinion is making someone feel uncomfortable, and react accordingly,” he says.

“Initially, place an emphasis on the fact that employees are in a place of work, and should be staying on task,” he suggests. “If political chat became too heated or hostile, this could encroach on an employee’s abilities to perform their duties.”

If an employee’s political expression is affecting their work performance, Bell says employers can take action to restrict that behaviour – as long as they have “robust evidence” to back up their claim.

Similarly, if people aggressively push their beliefs in the workplace, Bell says this could be seen as disruptive work practice which warrants disciplinary action.

“It is not what the employee believes, but their behaviour that is the problem,” he tells HRD. “If disciplinary procedures are necessary, this should be expressly highlighted.”

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