- Posted Monday October 28, 2019
My dad always told me that there were two things guaranteed to start a fight in a pub – religion and politics (also wearing the wrong football shirt in town on a match day, but that’s another story).
Working in healthcare, politics may often tend to provoke some kind of debate, but in today’s heated environment, people can easily turn an opinion into a fiery discussion that draws in individuals who may not even wish to get involved.
These arguments don’t just kick off a few squabbles. They can also result in reduced productivity, fallings out between staff, difficulty in getting work done and increased hostility - or in some cases, disciplinary action.
According to research from Reed, 60% of UK workers said it was OK to discuss politics at work, with 10% of employers saying they have tried to influence the political beliefs of their staff. Most people believe that free speech allows them to say what they want because “that’s my opinion”, but that’s not always the case…
Free Speech vs Hate Speech: Know the difference
The right to free speech under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 states that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression”. In the UK, this right is “subject to formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society”.
It’s not reasonable to place a blanket ban on discussing politics, but it is OK to ask employees not to get caught up in in conversations that distract them from their work or have a negative impact on the people around them.
There are several UK laws that outlaw hate speech, including Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986, making it an offence to use “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour that causes, or is likely to cause, another person harassment, alarm or distress”, as well as any language deemed to incite racial and religious hatred.
Here are a few steps you can take that will help your employees avoid politically based disruptions:
Have strong (but reasonable) policies in place
Any policies you implement around this hot topic should clarify what’s not allowed, such as wearing political badges or using company resources to take part in politically oriented activities. It’s also reasonable to ban the use of work email from being used for political activities. Last but not least, be absolutely clear that the practice does not tolerate any behaviour towards others related to political views or activities that can be deemed as threatening, harassing or discriminatory.
Make sure ‘conversations’ don’t turn into political harassment
Include political harassment as part of your Bullying and Harassment Policy to protect employees who feel discriminated against or unfairly targeted because of their political beliefs. Whichever side of the political fence we are on, remarks on topics such as healthcare or immigration have the potential to lead to perceived harassment based on race, gender or other protected classes.
Make sure staff are aware of your Grievance Procedure
The first step to take when an issue is raised should be trying to informally resolve the problem before turning to a formal grievance procedure. Where this doesn’t resolve the situation, staff should be able to make use of the formal grievance process to report any discussions or encounters they deem offensive or threatening.
An employee could potentially be dismissed for expressing political views within the workplace if their comments cause offence to colleagues who then raise an associated grievance. Under the Equality Act 2010 any individual can bring a claim of harassment if they feel that comments expressed and heard were offensive, hostile or intimidating. If you receive such a complaint, you should investigate in line with your company’s policies and procedures.
The right to ban political symbols at your practice
As an employer you can apply or enforce appropriate dress codes in the workplace, which can include a ban on items that demonstrate a political affiliation (this is particularly relevant where staff deal with the public face to face). This is generally best covered in a Dress Code Policy – don’t forget FPM members can download a suite of documents covering the issues raised in this article from our Policies Library.
Putting it in perspective
Realistically, your staff and colleagues are never going to stop discussing politics in the workplace altogether. What we certainly can achieve is cultivating a workplace culture where individuals’ feelings and beliefs are respected.
For the most part, a friendly discussion among staff can be quite positive. As a PM, it’s your duty to ensure that this positive and respectful atmosphere is upheld consistently across the practice and not just focused on any particular political argument or perspective.
Are you facing any of the issues raised here in your GP practice? FPM members can access specialist primary care HR support by contacting the HR Helpline at firstname.lastname@example.org.