January 15, 2012 in Business

Don’t let water-cooler talk bring down the office

Joyce Rosenberg

NEW YORK — The presidential primary season is upon us, and the Super Bowl isn’t that far off. Small-business owners may find productivity dipping as employees talk about the candidates and this weekend’s game.

How much chatter is OK when there’s work to be done? And, what if the discussions get a little heated?

Some things for you to consider when workers get distracted by what’s going on outside the company:

Don’t be an ogre

If your staff is generally hard-working, but gets a little sidetracked because of all the news, cut them some slack — as long as the company isn’t under pressure to get a project done or an order completed right away.

If you have few employees, or it’s just a small group of employees doing the chattering, it’s easy enough to say, “Hey, let’s have this conversation later. We need to get the work done first.” Think about the approach: You’re not forbidding the discussion. You’re reminding everyone of the priority, which is work.

With a larger group, you may need to use email, but keep that same tone. For example: “We’re all interested in the Super Bowl, but let’s save the conversation for break time or lunch.”

The key is to prevent a work atmosphere that’s unpleasant or oppressed. Allowing your staff to socialize on the job is a morale builder and, in the end, helps them work better together. And remember, when the job market eases and more people are able to find work, you don’t want to lose your best employees because they’d rather work for someone who seems more humane.

A caveat about politics

The First Amendment doesn’t give employees of a small business freedom of speech protection. But some states have laws that protect the rights of employees to express their political views; neither Washington nor Idaho has a law protecting workplace speech.

Political discussions can become problematic when staffers have opposing views, and when some are irritated by co-workers’ opinions. Another problem can occur if employees start disparaging a candidate because of race, gender or age. A staffer hearing the discussion might feel that the workplace is a hostile environment. And a hostile environment is the basis of a discrimination suit.

Your first step should be to tell the staffer who is upsetting others that their comments were inappropriate, says Arlene Vernon, president of HRx Inc., an Eden Prairie, Minn.-based human resources consultancy. That may be the case even if there’s no discrimination issue. Sometimes people expressing their political views can be strident or demeaning about co-workers’ opinions.

“You shouldn’t be allowed to over-assert your view or belittle someone else’s,” Vernon says.

Political conversations can also be a problem if they deteriorate into arguments. That can create tension and unpleasantness for everyone.

Leigh Branham, owner of Keeping The People Inc., an Overland Park, Kan., human resources consulting firm, suggests telling staffers that political conversations “can lead to very uncomfortable working relationships. If you want to talk about it, talk outside the office.”

The law does let you stop a political conversation from disrupting your business. The Association of Corporate Counsel, an organization of corporate lawyers, published “Top Ten Questions Regarding Political Dialogue in the Workplace” during the presidential campaign in 2008. It noted the state laws on political expression by employees, but also said:

“An employer can generally discipline or discharge an employee for legitimate, business-related reasons, even if the employee engages in political expression at work. If, for example, an employee’s political expression interferes with his/her work, disrupts his/her co-workers, or infringes upon a business objective, the employer can take action consistent with its written policies and practices.”

The ACC’s reference to “written policies and practices” means an employee policy or handbook. All employers should have one. It spells out what’s expected of employees in terms of behavior, attendance, dress and other issues. And also what they can expect in terms of fair treatment and also benefits like vacations and time off. You might want to include a policy on political discussion in the workplace.

The same problems that can come up during a verbal conversation can also come up in an online office chat room. Owners should remind their staffers that the computer system is to be used for work, and that any kind of offensive discussions will be handled in the same way as spoken ones will.

Remember the basics

If you have employees who are using up too much time chattering about the Super Bowl or politics or anything else, you have a performance issue to deal with. And it’s the same for political or other discussions that end up as shouting matches. When any discussion crosses the line into inappropriate behavior, it’s an owner’s responsibility to discipline the employees.

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