Small businesses need to be concerned about gender-fueled, political and /or racial office water cooler talk. At the same time, both employees and their employers need to understand their rights in the workplace.
The Dangers of Water Cooler Talk
Small Business Trends spoke with Debra Friedman, a partner at Cozen O’Connor’s Labor and Employment Department, about the five dangers of water cooler talk at your small business and how to prevent them.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) enforces federal laws that make discrimination against a job applicant or employee illegal based on several factors like age, gender and religion to name a few.
They investigate claims made by employees who feel they’ve been wronged and have the right to start lawsuits.
Small businesses with at least 15 employees or more are covered by these EEOC laws. Having a clear policy in place is your best defense.
“Employers can, and should, have policies that prohibit employees from engaging in unlawful discrimination, harassment, retaliation and bullying, or otherwise making threats of workplace violence,” Friedman says.
America is a diverse place with different cultures and viewpoints. Allowing people to discuss things like religious preferences at work can alienate workers and ultimately affect your bottom line. Private employers have a right to set limits for what employees talk about.
“Contrary to what you might believe, there is no right to free speech in private workplaces. The First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the government, not private employers, from limiting free speech,” Friedman says.
High Turn Over
Not having a proper policy in place that is enforced openly can actually cost you top people. If employees feel their concerns about discrimination and hostile work environments won’t be taken seriously, they can give up and look for other jobs.
A Bad Reputation
Damaging water cooler talk can even find its way into cyberspace through social media and do damage to your company’s reputation there. Friedman says there’s a fine line to walk but one that small businesses need to consider.
“While employers cannot have a rule prohibiting employees from expressing their opinions on social media, they can have a rule that any posted content not violate the letter or spirit of the company’s policies against discrimination, harassment and retaliation.” she says.
Small businesses can also have a rule that states employees need to be clear their opinions are their own when posting about or promoting products from their employer. They also need to clearly identify themselves as employees.
Discriminatory banter at your workplace can get out of hand quickly. Nipping any kind of racial, gender biased or political talk before things get physical is a legal priority for small businesses. Employers can be held liable even if they didn’t know about the conduct in question.
However, there are some exceptions. For example, employees are allowed to talk with each other about terms and conditions around their work. That kind of conversation is covered as free speech.
“Complaints about working conditions or unlawful conduct are protected too,” Friedman adds.
While policies that curtail free speech need to be carefully considered for their effects on morale and any legal considerations, small businesses need open door policies and training in place. These need to be compliant with equal employment opportunity laws so everyone is on the same page.
Making sure your policy is easily accessible by including it in your employee handbook and having a copy available public in places like the lunchroom.
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