Political discourse in the workplace: Risking discrimination and alienation

Heated debates can have a risk of harassment and discrimination
By Ioana Pantis
|Canadian Employment Law Today|Last Updated: 02/20/2019

Social media, divisive politics, and increasingly aggressive discourse in society have created an environment in which antagonism is more common when certain topics — like politics — are discussed. Sometimes discussions can deteriorate and lead to some unfortunate things being said. This is bad enough when it occurs among people generally, but what happens when it happens at work? What can employers do to smooth out politically charged arguments that could lead to claims of harassment or discrimination?

Never discuss politics or religion in mixed company. That’s a time-honoured rule that many of our grandparents adhered to in a well-mannered attempt to keep the peace while spending time with family, friends, or colleagues who might harbour differing world views. At a time of workplace hyper-sensitivity — where every comment is parsed for potential offence — that advice is still worth heeding.

Indeed, technological advancements and increasingly-democratized communication — from our mobile phones to social media accounts — are empowering employees to speak their mind on a wide range of topics. This is causing headaches for some employers who have been forced to issue repeated reminders that free speech is not without limitations. While an employee may not be sanctioned for speaking freely from an individual rights perspective, doing so can have a negative effect on an employer’s brand. Speaking out on sensitive topics could also raise human rights or discrimination allegations, not to mention potential liability on the employer’s behalf should they be deemed to have condoned the potentially offensive conduct.