Social and Political Issues and the Workplace – Implications for Employers

Over the past year, employers have had to grapple with seismic social, cultural, and political developments impacting profoundly how they do business. From a worldwide pandemic severely affecting global communities, markets and workplaces, to the murder of George Floyd catapulting racial and social justice issues to international prominence, to a tumultuous presidential election and its resulting fallout, to the brutal attacks on the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, there has been a fundamental shift in how employers interact with the world around them and manage their ever-changing workforces.

How a company responds – or fails to respond – to social justice and political issues can impact employee morale, consumer satisfaction, community perception, a company’s relationships with its investors and its financial health. And while employees have always brought their experiences and influences to work, increased polarization and a lightning-fast news cycle have seen businesses not only scrambling to adapt their policies and practices to respond to new realities, but also proactively making commitments to issues and causes important to their leadership, their employees, and the communities they serve.

In addition to concerns surrounding corporate responsibility and satisfying employees, consumers, and the public at large, employers find themselves having to respond to a wide range of on- and off-duty employee conduct, including:

  • Social media activity;
  • Attendance at protests and rallies;
  • Messaging on clothing and masks;
  • Workplace civility and safety; and
  • Leaves and time off

While traversing these issues, employers need to navigate a patchwork of federal, state, and local employment laws, including but not limited to:

  • Laws governing political activity and privacy;
  • National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) obligations;
  • State free speech protections;
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requirements; and
  • Federal and state occupational safety and health obligations.

Amid this backdrop, there are a number of steps employers can take to prepare their workplaces for the effect of social and political issues and respond to developments as they occur, including:

  • Implicit bias and other diversity training;
  • Employee Resource Groups/Business Resource Groups/affinity groups; and
  • Developing internal and external company messaging and other responses.

This paper reviews the relevant legal backdrop and aims to offer practical guidance for employers as they navigate these sensitive and pressing issues.

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Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.