Political passions in the lab

Q Election season
is upon us. Some lab employees — passionate about their political
choices — can get heated up when political discussions start. What
latitude does a lab manager have in making these debates “off limits”
during working hours?

A The short answer — a
great deal. Lab productivity requires a collegial environment focused on
the medical procedures at hand. For a manager to prohibit any activity
not work related is reasonable, particularly one that also interferes
with the smooth functioning of the lab. If the lab staff is not
sufficiently self regulating to prevent political discussions from being
an impediment to work and cordial relationships, then management has the
responsibility to impose policies that will restore a proper working
climate. Failing to do so can create a hostile work environment.

Private employers can regulate or prohibit many
types of speech in the workplace. Although a constitutional guarantee
protects political speech from legislative interference by the
government, such protections do not extend to employees on the job. In
fact, a significant body of law exists that not only permits employers
to regulate discussions in the workplace but also supports the right of
the employer to terminate employees who violate workplace speech
standards and policies.

Employers can and do prohibit employees from
engaging in disruptive discussions that are not political (e.g.,
sexually explicit or profane speech). Restricting the content of what
employees present as a part of their employment duties also may be
legitimate, as long as the underlying duty to care properly for the
patient is not compromised. An employer may prohibit an employee from
using his job as a forum for marketing unrelated medical services,
recruiting for another employer, or, even, proselytizing. Consequently,
it is reasonable for an employer to prohibit electioneering within the
workplace.

Regulation of conversation should be clearly
spelled out and limited to regulating workplace behavior; it should be
focused on fostering mutual respect and congeniality, rather than on
squelching personal preferences. In the short election season, it might
be appropriate for an employer to restrict employees from wearing
political buttons on uniforms or from passing out literature to other
employees. It would not be appropriate to ban political bumper stickers
or participation in political rallies, if undertaken on an employee’s
own time.

Private employers can regulate or prohibit
many types
of speech in the workplace.

Any workplace regulations on politicking must be
neutral, limited to legitimate work concerns, and generally applicable
with no room to argue that one political position is being suppressed in
favor of another. If political discussions are to be “off limits” at the
bench, they should be off limits when people agree or when they do not.
Certainly, common sense as well as deference to patient care dictates
that lab personnel should not engage in such discussions with patients
or their families.

Enforcing a restriction against political debates
in the lab is relatively easy, but to what extent it is either wise or
possible to control those discussions on breaks outside the lab is not
so clear. Unless off-site or off-clock discussions create an obstacle to
lab function, addressing or attempting to regulate such discussions is
not within the manager’s purview. If, however, employees’ personal
debates spill over into the workplace, handle the situation like any
breakdown of work relationships. Employees who permit personal matters
to interfere with work will hamper the effective functioning of the lab
and should be subject to performance management because of their work,
not their opinions.

Before election day, establish clear guidelines
for the political season. Try to forestall problems by having a candid
management discussion with your team, emphasizing that individual
respect is the cornerstone of a well-functioning lab and encouraging
employees to leave political discussions at the door. Although you may
not be able to prevent lunchtime debates, you can encourage your staff
to avoid them. You should clarify the general expectation of civility
that governs the lab at all times — not just during election campaigns.
If you have institutional rules about wearing buttons or passing out
pamphlets, make those rules clear at the beginning and enforce them
uniformly.

Healthcare-financing issues that impact the lab
are common in presidential campaigns. Employers may want to present such
information to the lab staff so that they are aware of the professional
stakes in the political process. Even though an employer generally has
the right to let employees know of issues that may bear on how the
business may respond and fare in the future, doing so in a neutral and
non-confrontational way is important. It may be more appropriate for
that information to come from professional organizations rather than lab
management, especially if the administration has taken a position that
discourages political discourse in the workplace. Management must never
take a position that might be construed as coercing or improperly
influencing an individual’s vote, or require an employee’s attendance at
political meetings of any kind.

Barbara Harty-Golder is a
pathologist-attorney consultant in Chattanooga, TN. She maintains a law
practice with a special interest in medical law. She writes and lectures
extensively on healthcare law, risk management, and human resource
management.

MLO’s “Liability and the Lab” is
intended to provide risk management and human resource management
education; it is not intended to provide specific legal advice. If you
require legal advice, the services of an attorney should be sought. Dr.
Harty-Golder welcomes your questions, which can be sent to her at
[email protected]. Unless
otherwise noted as “confidential” by readers, all queries will be
considered for publication without further notice to them. Names,
institution, city, and state will be removed before publication.

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