In a widely reported and discussed development, Google recently updated its workplace community guidelines to prevent employees from engaging in discussions related to politics and news events. As we scrutinize this update that marks a monumental shift in the company’s otherwise open culture and policies, let us also attempt to understand the room that political discussion has in the modern workplace.
The latest from Google
In August, Google issued new workplace guidelines that, in no ambiguous terms, told employees to focus on their work and not hold discussions on politics, news, and other non-work related topics. “Our primary responsibility is to do the work we’ve each been hired to do, not to spend working time on debates about non-work topics,” the guidelines read1. Further, they stated, “While sharing information and ideas with colleagues helps build community, disrupting the workday to have a raging debate over politics or the latest news story does not.”
These new guidelines took the world by shock because Google has traditionally championed a free and open workplace culture wherein employees are encouraged to speak their minds. The strongly-worded guidelines reflect a change in the company’s history and culture, which made free expression, creativity, and thinking outside the box a norm in the workplace. Jenn Kaiser, a company spokesperson, explained2 that the guidelines are a response to “increased incivility” on the company’s internal platforms and demands from employees to have clearer rules on what’s acceptable and unacceptable to say. Google also announced3 that a team of dedicated moderators was being hired to regulate internal employee discussion forums, which have witnessed an uptick in political debates and discussions. However, commentators are pointing out4 that this is yet another attempt to keep employees in check after a turbulent year that was marred with employee walkouts, citizen backlash, and bad press. On the one hand, Google has been under pressure from its employees and citizens for working on defense projects5 and mishandling sexual harassment claims6; on the other, it has been under fire from the US government for allegedly being unfair to conservative employees and digital platforms7. Critics say that this near-reversal of the company’s policies reflect Google’s effort to ensure that employee expression and activism does not impact the company’s bottom line.
Thirty-one percent of the respondents surveyed in a 2017 American survey stated that their productivity has decreased as a result of political expression at work
Discussing politics at work
Google isn’t the first company to regulate political discussion in the workplace, and it certainly won’t be the last. While organizations might not single out politics or news events as topics of conversation and outright ban it, most organizations have guidelines that prevent employees from political campaigning and activism; and more importantly from discriminating or harassing those who hold different beliefs or identities. Traditionally, talking about politics, religion, and sex has been discouraged in the workplace8 and in today’s politically turbulent times, there is no telling when a politically-charged conversation turns into bullying or name-calling, or other forms of discrimination.
Even in the USA, the First Amendment, that guarantees the right to free speech, doesn’t specifically apply to political expression in the workplace, especially in the private sector9. This has led to many states and employers following drastically different policies on the discussion of politics in the workplace, which range from strict laws advocating political expression to no laws at all10. If the law in the region so allows, organizations can ban political expression, including discussions, citing an adverse impact on productivity11. There might be some truth to this argument as 31 percent of the respondents surveyed in a 2017 Clutch survey12 in America stated that their productivity has decreased as a result of political expression at work. Another 2018 Indeed survey13 found that 20 percent of Americans wanted political discussions censored at their workplace and 60 percent of those who feel silenced identified their peers as the biggest source of pressure.
In India as well, there is no absolute clarity on what is acceptable to discuss in the workplace and what is not, and more importantly, to what extent does the freedom of speech and expression apply in the workplace. In a publication for International Bar Association, Preetha S and Vikram Shroff of Nishith Desai Associates say14, “In India, several fundamental questions pertaining to the extent and manner of controlling employees’ rights to speech and expression remain a grey area in the absence of specific legislation governing the subject. The issue becomes murkier due to the complex interplay between constitutional laws, tort law, contract law, employment laws, and technology laws.”
Policing the political talk
Political ideologies, leaders, and decisions are integral to modern society, and most individuals have some sort of an opinion on the same. So, should an organization have a policy specifically regulating political discussions and debates? One school of thought15 says that employees should have the freedom to be as political or apolitical as they please, and policies must only aim to regulate such topics, rather than ban them altogether. Others argue16 that since an employer has a responsibility to make every employee feel comfortable, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, organizations must clearly spell out that employees must avoid political talk to prevent harassment and discrimination.
The challenge is to strike the delicate balance between defining what constitutes ‘objectionable’ and ‘unacceptable’ in the workplace while upholding a person’s right to freedom of speech
While both these approaches have their own pros and cons, there is no denying that a blanket ban on all political dialogue will be notoriously challenging to implement. For instance, how will managers prevent employees from discussing politics during breaks? How will those who violate the policy be penalized? On the other hand, if organizations want to regulate political discussions, where do they draw the line? While having a well-defined and comprehensive policy that helps employees understand what topics are off-limits can be helpful, the challenge is to strike the delicate balance between defining what constitutes ‘objectionable’ and ‘unacceptable’ in the workplace, while upholding a person’s right to freedom of speech.
On the other hand, employees need to identify their role in the discourse. While an increasing number of millennials prefer to work with organizations with strong moral, social and environmental consciousness17, they also need to be mindful of the fact that they are a representative of their organization, even outside of work. Most social media platforms allow people to display where they are employed, which means even passive ‘sharing’ or ‘liking’ is warranting increased scrutiny. There have been some instances18 of employees expressing, or even endorsing, racist, misogynistic or sexist views on social media being reprimanded, or even being fired, in the last few years. Organizations are also looking at social media activity for hiring and engagement19, which means that even personal views expressed outside the domain of work are also under surveillance.
To sum up, we need to discuss and debate the place for political discussion in the workplace to ensure that differences in opinions and beliefs are managed respectfully. While Google’s reversal on its stance will set a precedent for others, experts suggest that the most effective strategy is to help employees realize the boundary on their own. It can be tough to formulate policies that regulate employee beliefs and thoughts without coming across as attacking their personal or political ideologies. However, Preetha S and Vikram Shroff suggest, “Policies should be clear enough to state that anything intimidating, discriminating or harassing or anything that interferes with workplace productivity shall not be tolerated. It is also important that the guidelines regarding freedom of expression be carefully crafted and uniformly enforced so that all employees are treated equally and fairly.”
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