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How to survive in a politically charged workplace

On Behalf of | May 24, 2022 | Federal Employment Law

Our nation is as politically divided as it has been in many years. Recent events have done little to remedy this fact. Instead, the astonishing leak of a Supreme Court draft ruling has sent waves of electricity running through workplaces everywhere.

Emotionally and politically charged workplaces can be troublesome anywhere. But for federal employees, the standard watercooler topics might be more than personally delicate. They can start to feel like a series of tripwires running across a minefield.

Two reasons federal employees should be wary

Conversations about abortion and Roe v. Wade have triggered heated emotions for decades. The issue has long divided America, and it has, as a result, typically been a taboo workplace topic. However, the Supreme Court now appears poised to overturn decades of precedent. That news has made abortion a central and pressing concern for millions of people. Much like the draft opinion has leaked into the news, the topic has leaked into countless workplaces.

Notably, the topic of abortion does not exist in a vacuum. It is highly politically charged. It has been a key part of political platforms for years. Among federal employees, that means it’s easy for conversations about abortion to veer into troublesome territory.

  • One concern is running afoul of the Hatch Act. Passed in 1939, the Hatch Act exists to make sure the federal government can conduct its business in a non-partisan fashion. Accordingly, it bans federal employees from engaging in certain types of political activity. These include encouraging or discouraging others from participating in political activities. Employees must also avoid engaging in political activities while at work or in federal buildings. Given the political sensitivities around abortion, it’s best to steer clear.
  • A second concern is just as important, but far murkier. Theoretically, managers and directors could use conversations about abortion as a screen to demote or remove employees they don’t like. It’s illegal to target employees based on their membership in a protected class. That said, it still happens. When it does, managers and agencies often invent bogus excuses. For example, they may claim an employee created a hostile workplace by badgering others about abortion. The problem is that it’s often difficult to work through the excuses to reveal the truth. There’s no reason to provide additional ammunition.

It is worth noting that federal employees still have the right to participate in political activities. Most can campaign, sign petitions, distribute campaign literature and volunteer for a political campaign. They just can’t do it at work or in a way that links their political preferences with their professional duties.

Just don’t do it

The simplest way to keep your opinions from coming back to haunt you is to just avoid voicing them in the office. Don’t argue your point of view. Don’t distribute political emails. Don’t wear clothing with political slogans. Keep your professional life and political viewpoints separate. Just don’t mix them.

Raising heated topics can backfire in any office. But it’s even riskier in the federal workplace. Federal agencies are closely tied to national politics. Rules like the Hatch Act help maintain a healthy separation between political turbulence and the daily routine. Respecting that separation is key to keeping the federal government running smoothly.


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