How to safely talk with your employees about policy; not politics

As a business owner, you may be reluctant to “talk politics” at work because you do not want to be accused of pushing your beliefs on others. However, your employees want to understand how public policy affects the company, because it affects their jobs too. Employees consider employers a trusted source for information. Even better, by empowering them with information, your employees will be more likely to engage in the political process after you talk with them.

According to the Business Industry Political Action Committee, employees consider their employers to be the single most credible source of political and public policy issues, ahead of political parties and the news media. Not only that, but the same survey showed that employees want their employers to share important policy information with them by a two to one margin. Even better, the majority of those polled are more likely to vote after they receive the information from an employer.

No one, including your employees, wants to vote based on being vaguely informed about candidates and issues. If your employees have the confidence to make an informed decision, they will go to the polls. Let employees know what issues pose a risk or benefit to your business and why; for example, transportation funding or workers compensation rates. Be transparent and share the data that is important for a complete understanding of the issue. By providing your employees with information — but letting them decide who to vote for themselves — you are empowering them with knowledge, not personal political beliefs.

When providing information to employees, it is important not to ask an employee about their personal views. If someone wants to share their views, they will offer them without being asked. Further, employees have a right under Wisconsin law to decline to participate in discussions involving political or religious issues. Keep that in mind if someone doesn’t want to talk with you. Finally, please be aware that union organizing has its own set of rules completely different than the policy discussion advice set forth in this article, and as a result need to be handled with specific advice of legal counsel. In addition, local ordinances, such as the City of Madison’s equal opportunities ordinance, prohibit discrimination based on political beliefs. Thus, as always, it is important to make employment decisions based on legitimate business reasons.

Both the ABC of Wisconsin Chapter and National ABC have tools on our websites that you can use to have this conversation with your employees or provide articles in company publications. The ABC action app is available at Google Play and iTunes and should be downloaded by both you and your employees. You can also send out a broadcast email about legislative or policy updates. For example, you could forward interesting tidbits from either the Merit Shop Express or Building Influence e-newsletters. Feel free to invite John Mielke or me to provide a legislative update to your employees.

Here are some important caveats to keep in mind during this process. While you have a free speech right to say what you want about politics at work, there are limits. You should never hint that the company will go out of business or wages will be cut based on an election’s outcome. In other words, all communications must be non-threatening. Also, you should not expressly advocate (as in “vote for,” “support,” “defeat,”) a position or solicit campaign contributions. If you have questions or think you are getting close to the line, please do not hesitate to call the Chapter or use the ABC attorney one-call line (both included in your membership).

Right now, political discourse seems to be producing more heat than light. But even in these passionately partisan times, the public policy decisions made by our elected officials impact the way your company does business and the way your employees work and live. Elected officials work for both you and your employees. You are a community leader, and this is what participatory democracy is all about. You have both the credibility and the opportunity to educate and motivate your employees to the polls. Tell your employees that you value their role in your company and recognize they are people who can influence policy. It is the voice and vote of both you and your employees that matter.

By John Schulze, Director of Government Affairs, ABC of Wisconsin

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