Best Practice for Employers

May 2017

Best Practice for Political Activity in the Workplace 

Theresa May has called a snap election for the 8th of June. Competition for votes is fierce amongst the political parties and even the least politically engaged are taking part in heated debates on controversial topics. Employees may be very involved in the activities of political parties (for instance, leafleting and campaigning) and employees are, of course, entitled to support, and vote for, whoever they wish. But what are the potential problems when politics and the workplace mix?

Employers’ Influence in the Workplace

Outside working hours, employers are limited in the control that they can exert in respect of their employees’ political activities. In general terms, employers can control employees' actions only when they are working, or where their actions have a direct impact on their employment. An employer could, for instance, take action if the employees' political activities are bringing the employer into disrepute.

Unfair Dismissal and Political Affiliations

The key thing that employers should remember is that employees do not need the normal minimum two-year qualifying service in order to be able to claim unfair dismissal where the reason for their dismissal is their political opinion or affiliation. It follows from this that employers must be particularly careful when considering dismissing or taking disciplinary action on the basis of an employee’s political affiliations, even if they may seem offensive. Consequently, employers should be cautious in dismissing employees in these circumstances, regardless of their length of service, and should ensure that the employee's membership of a political party is not the sole reason for the dismissal. There is a difference, however, between an employee holding a political view and that view manifesting itself in campaigning in the workplace. In the latter case, the employer is better able to take action.

Political Campaigning in the Workplace

Political campaigning in the workplace can take many forms, from an employee having a heated political discussion with a co-worker, to handing out leaflets and putting up posters, to organising political meetings. The employer cannot reasonably expect to be able to ban its employees from discussing politics in the workplace, but it is certainly reasonable for an employer to prevent staff from political campaigning while at work, for fear of the disruption, or upset to colleagues or customers this could cause. It is reasonable for employers to ban campaigning during working hours and to take disciplinary action if an employee is found to be undertaking non-work activities, such as political campaigning, when they should be working. Similarly, an employer could take disciplinary action against an employee who uses an employer's equipment for party-political business.

Employers should also be mindful that, if an employee is actively campaigning for an extreme political party at work, or expressing political views that create an intimidating or hostile environment for colleagues, this conduct (not his or her membership of a political party) could be considered to be bullying or harassment and could amount to a fair reason for dismissal. Political expression is not a defence to an allegation of discrimination and/or harassment and employers should act on any example of genuinely offensive speech.

Any employer who is concerned about establishing guidelines for what is and is not acceptable may wish to introduce a company policy on political activity in the workplace. Simply-Docs has a Political Activity in the Workplace Policy that sets down expectations and establishes a clear Code of Conduct.

The contents of this Newsletter are for reference purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. Independent legal advice should be sought in relation to any specific legal matter.

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