Culture

Knowing the Limits of Political Conversations at Work

By

Caleb Masters

| Sep 5, 2017

Having political conversations in the office can be difficult, especially in the wake of a divisive post-election season. When employees from various walks of life work in the same space, there’s more opportunity for political disagreements and potentially toxic office conversations.

Determining how your organization will handle political activity in your organization remains a blind spot for many organizations. A 2016 SHRM survey reported that 72% of HR professionals said their companies discourage political activities in the workplace, but only 24% of organizations have a written policy. To further muddy the waters, 8% reported having an unwritten policy that was not communicated explicitly.

 For more tips on how to manage political conversations at work, check out our  HR Break Room podcast episode, Political Conversations at Work: Should HR Pass It or Veto It

These heated conversations make way for an important question for employees and HR to consider: What are your organization’s rules and limits in participating in politics?

Private institutions are king.

It’s important to note that not all organizations operate under the same rules and regulations when it comes to engaging in political discourse or being active in political campaigns. For instance, because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010, private employers have the right to make their opinions and preferences known to both employees and the public.

This ruling also gives private organizations a great deal of leeway in handling political discourse and policy on their own terms. They are not prohibited from restricting employees’ speech and even can have employees participate in political campaigns on the clock.

What’s even more surprising? The Bill of Rights doesn’t protect workers in the private sector from being fired over speech in or outside the workplace – it only prevents the government from infringing upon citizen’s speech.

What can nonprofits do?

The rights of private organizations differ quite a bit from the rights of nonprofits. Organizations that want to maintain the highly sought-after 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status are forbidden from participating in partisan “political campaigns” or else risk having that status revoked by the IRS.

However, the definition of “political campaign” can be ambiguous, especially when nonprofits are allowed to participate in such nonpartisan activities as voter registration drives and legislative advocacy programs.

Here’s a quick breakdown of nonprofit advocacy groups and what they can/can’t do in the political arena:

  • 501(c)(3) groups – are religious, charitable, scientific or educational organizations and are not supposed to engage in any political activities, though some voter registration activities are permitted.
  • 501(c)(4) groups – are social welfare groups and organizations that may engage in political activities, as long as these activities do not become their primary purpose.
  • 501(c)(5)groups – are labor and agricultural organizations that may engage in political activities, as long as these activities do not become their primary purpose.
  • 501(c)(6)groups – are business leagues, chambers of commerce, real estate boards and boards of trade may engage in political activities, as long as these activities do not become their primary purpose.

 

The next three nonprofit groups exist FOR political purposes:

  • 527groups – are tax-exempt groups organized under section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code to raise money for political activities. These groups are typically parties, candidates, committees or associations organized for the purpose of influencing an issue, policy, appointment or election, be it federal, state or local.
  • Hybrid PACs (Carey Committees) – these nonprofit committee groups are not affiliated with a candidate and has the ability to contributing funds to a candidate’s committee and to make independent expenditures, as long as they have separate bank accounts for each purpose.
  • Political Action Committee (PAC)– these nonprofit committees raise and spend limited money contributions for the purpose of electing or defeating political candidates.

 

To know how to make the best company policy at a nonprofit, it is important to understand how the IRS determines these terms. The IRS uses what it calls “facts and circumstances” to determine whether nonprofit organizations are engaging in partisan political activity. This means certain activities not normally considered political in a non-election year could be considered political two months before or after an election.

When determining how your 501(c)(3) organization gets involved in political activities, it’s crucial to consider the nature and goals of the activity before deciding whether it is worth the potential risk.

Few organizations have policy.

Whether a Fortune 500 company or a local nonprofit, knowing exactly what your organization’s limits are in participating in politics helps employees understand expectations and act accordingly. These allowances and their boundaries also can help you determine how to handle these political conversations when they inevitably arise at work.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to manage these sensitive political topics, please subscribe to Paycom’s HR Break Room podcast and listen to our latest episode with special guest Robin Schooling.

About the Author

Caleb Masters

Caleb is the host of The HR Break Room and a Webinar and Podcast Producer at Paycom. With more than 5 years of experience as a published online writer and content producer, Caleb has produced dozens of podcasts and videos for multiple industries both local and online. Caleb continues to assist organizations creatively communicate their ideas and messages through researched talks, blog posts and new media. Outside of work, Caleb enjoys running, discussing movies and trying new local restaurants.

See more posts by Caleb Masters