AINsight: Flight Deck No Place for Political Debates

 - June 26, 2020, 12:46 PM

Today, everything is political. Sadly, that is the reality of life in America. Political conversations, fueled by social media and a 24-hour news cycle, have spilled into every area of our lives, from our homes to the workplace—and for pilots that includes the flight deck. As the 2020 election nears, the political chatter and debates among friends and coworkers will only increase.

In the workplace setting, if not kept in check, these political discussions are ripe to become emotionally charged debates harming both personal and professional relationships. Beyond hurt feelings, not to mention the obvious distractions and safety implications, these discussions are often unprofessional, unproductive, and might be illegal.

A recent CareerBuilder survey measuring employee attitudes toward political discussions in the workplace found that 14 percent of workers “actively engaged in lively political debates at work.” The remainder were evenly split between “avoiding the conversation altogether” or “talking about politics but shutting down the conversation if it became heated.”

If you fall into that 14 percent category—the minority who thrive on conflict at work—the reality is that your 20-minute CNN or Fox News-infused rant at FL410 will likely fall on deaf ears and is not going to change the opinion of the guy or gal sitting next to you.

In some cases, when these conversations cross the line, the behavior of the employee could be construed as bullying, harassment, or discriminatory, and the employer is on the legal hook for creating a “hostile” work environment.

To ameliorate this potential for legal jeopardy, employers must have a carefully crafted policy to set expectations and rules around political talk and politically motivated activities. It is important to keep these policies neutral and not single out any single political view. These policies should be linked to an employer’s formal policy against unlawful harassment and discrimination. The goal of these policies is to create a culture of civility.

On the flight deck, captains must set the tone by respecting the views of others and controlling the conversation to avoid those contentious “hot button” topics.

Right now, there are several “powder keg” issues that relate to race, gender, religion, and/or other social issues, such as health and immigration, that might invoke a strong opposing view. With the current level of political volatility, it is not a stretch to envision a lively political debate morphing into something that is deemed harassment.

Among legal and HR professionals, there is an ongoing debate on the best way to keep political discussions out of the workplace. One view is to essentially do nothing, reasoning that in a connected world “the old rules of talking politics and religion is out the window and that banning political discussions borders on being illegal and is practically impossible to enforce.”

Others, including the opinions of the labor law firm Holland and Knight, believe “private employers can reassert control by recognizing that commonly held beliefs about politics in the workplace are, in fact, a misconception.”

In a recent Holland and Knight Alert publication, the firm wrote, “Employees as well as many employers, commonly but mistakenly believe that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees ‘freedom of speech’ at work. In fact, the First Amendment applies only to government action and neither limits the rights of private employers to regulate employee’s communications nor provides any constitutional right for those workers to express thoughts or opinions at work.”

To restate this point, there is no constitutionally protected right for “free speech” at the office, at the factory, or on the flight deck, with only a few exceptions. The U.S. Constitution does allow employees to express opinions on their own time.

Furthermore, since most workers in the U.S. are classified as “at-will” employees, an employer might refuse to hire, adjust pay/benefits, or even discharge an employee because of political views. According to Holland and Knight, “Political discrimination often is not unlawful discrimination.”

There are two exceptions to this principle. First, some states have laws that provide protections for political activities. As an example, several states have laws that protect “free speech,” “political activity,” or “off-duty conduct” that are different than federal laws or the laws of other states. For multi-state employers, they must be careful in crafting their policies to accommodate these variances in laws.

The second exception, based on the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), limits an employer’s rights to restrict non-supervisory employees to communicate on issues related to wages, hours or work, or other conditions of employment. These NLRA restrictions protect both union and non-union employees.

According to the Holland and Knight Alert, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)—the federal agency that enforces the NLRA—recognizes that all non-supervisory employees have the right to engage in concerted communications related to work-related issues such as pay, benefits, and workplace safety.

Of importance, according to information in the alert, “Because the NLRA’s protections are limited to political topics with a nexus to specific employment-related issues, employers lawfully may restrict workplace communications and activities that are purely political in nature.”   

A quick note about social media. Social media is a vehicle for heated political comments. There are a few cases where employers have terminated an employee for ill-advised political rants on social media, especially if it is harmful to the employer. In most cases, electronic records of these posts are legally discoverable and have been used in court cases.

Only a few states protect workers from retaliation from an employer due to political affiliation or activity. Remember, most workers in the U.S. are “at-will” employees.

As an employer, review your policies on political discussions and unlawful harassment and discrimination. If you are in a leadership role—director, manager, supervisor, or captain—lead by example and establish what is acceptable or not acceptable.

When you are out flying the line, have a strategy to change-up the conversation. There is usually some common ground such as past aircraft, operators, former colleagues, vacation destinations, or whatever. If the conversation continues, it is appropriate to remind a coworker of policies that are in place to protect fellow workers.  

Pilot, safety expert, consultant, and aviation journalist Stuart “Kipp” Lau writes about flight safety and airmanship for AIN. He can be reached at stuart.lau3@gmail.com.