Dealing with National Politics in the Workplace

You can’t get away from it these days. It’s all the media is talking about, it’s all over our social media feeds, it’s on all the award shows and entertainment programs we’re watching, it’s overheard in the stores and coffee shops we are visiting, and it’s in our workplace. Political discussions are everywhere and we are more politically polarized than I’ve ever seen in my life.

With today’s massive megaphone of social media and the 24 hour news cycle, many people have expressed their passion about the political issues and their candidates. And there’s something to offend just about anybody with the current hot-button issues such as race, class, gender, abortion, LGBT rights, immigration, terrorism, religion, etc.

I would venture to guess that we have all witnessed some very heated exchanges between family, friends, and coworkers regarding today’s political climate. I’ve seen people I respect and care about say or write some pretty horrible things about others based simply on their political beliefs.

People are more polarized in their positions like I’ve never seen before and those positions are making their way into the workplace and affecting morale and productivity.

In addition, many of today’s issues swerve into employment law. Political discussions about issues that affect working conditions such as minimum wage, equal pay, and paid leave might be protected by federal law.  While, on the other hand, political discussions about race, gender, and religion may lead to harassment or discrimination claims. And it only takes one person to pop off during a heated discussion and alienate another employee and/or cause a hostile work environment or a potential harassment claim.

I make it a practice not to discuss politics at work – especially these days. I hear enough of it on my Sirius radio when I commute to and from work and when I’m home trying to catch up on the news. Frankly, I’m exhausted of it all and don’t want to have to deal with it when I’m at work.

But, I’m HR, so I have to deal with it at work.

As such, I’ve come up with a couple of proven recommendations to help keep things under control.

First and foremost, HR must remain neutral. This is my number one recommendation. Whatever your beliefs, HR must be neutral and not take a side in a disputed conversation about politics. HR absolutely should not engage in a conversation with other employees expressing their political opinions and joining in with them bashing a side. I guarantee that you have employees on the other side who will hear or overhear what you said which will erode your credibility with them.

The purpose of your neutrality allows all of your employees to feel safe coming to you with their concerns about potentially uncomfortable or hostile political conversations they overheard or were part of. It’s HR’s job to make sure employees feel safe to surface any concerns they have from conversations they’ve had or overheard that make them feel uncomfortable or offended.

Second, Establish and communicate ground rules. Meet with your senior leaders to determine what political discussions your organization is willing to tolerate/accept at work. Will you ban it entirely or will you allow some as long as their respectful, appropriate, and inclusive of all beliefs?

Once you have that established,  conduct an all hands meeting and follow up with an email reminding your employees to be professional, respectful, and tolerant of other employee’s political beliefs. Remind them of the process for airing their complaints and how they will be dealt with and what the consequences will be for violating these ground rules. You must, as HR, clearly communicate to your employee population where you draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. You can’t be ambiguous.

It’s also important to understand that you can’t ignore the issue at work. Ignoring it will only make the situation worse because these conversations may escalate into profanity and direct threats. Other employees who want to stay out of these discussions may also be unwillingly dragged in.

When you overhear a controversial political discussion happening at your workplace, and you’ve established the accepted ground rules, you simply remind the employees engaged in the conversation that they are not behaving in an acceptable manner (professional, respectful, or tolerant). If they continue after your reminder, you simply begin your organization’s disciplinary process.

Hopefully these suggestions will help you keep your workplace professional, respectful, civil and ultimately productive! Also, if situations arise where intervention of a third party is required to ward off office politics, expert help and counsel on several matters can always be available at Labor Law Compliance Center. Feel free to reach out to them.

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Why we have to fill out a Form I-9 and the consequences if we don’t

This week, I’m going to start discussing the importance of the Form I-9 (Don’t worry, I will continue the Metrics & Analytics Series. I just like to occasionally cover another topic from time to time). Nearly every single client that I visit fails to understand the importance of correctly filling out their I-9’s.

In fact, it is my understanding that many organizations don’t take it seriously. They are very sloppy about completing them correctly, if at all, and have no idea of the major liability they incur by not taking it seriously.

Let’s start by discussing what the Form I-9 is and why we have to fill it out.

From the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website they explain it this way:

Form I-9 is used for verifying the identity and employment authorization of individuals hired for employment in the United States. All U.S. employers must ensure proper completion of Form I-9 for each individual they hire for employment in the United States. This includes citizens and noncitizens. Both employees and employers (or authorized representatives of the employer) must complete the form. On the form, an employee must attest to his or her employment authorization. The employee must also present his or her employer with acceptable documents evidencing identity and employment authorization. The employer must examine the employment eligibility and identity document(s) an employee presents to determine whether the document(s) reasonably appear to be genuine and to relate to the employee and record the document information on the Form I-9. The list of acceptable documents can be found on the last page of the form. Employers must retain Form I-9 for a designated period and make it available for inspection by authorized government officers.

The USCIS clearly states here that every employer in the U.S. must complete a Form I-9 for every employee they hire including citizens and noncitizens. There are no exceptions. There are also heavy fines and penalties for not complying with the requirement.

To give you an idea of how serious the fines are, let’s review what the USCIS has posted on their website:

1. For knowingly hiring an unauthorized alien for employment or to knowingly continue to employ an unauthorized alien in the U.S., the fines range from $539 to $4,313 for each unauthorized alien for the first offense and goes to $6,469 to $21,563 for the third and subsequent offenses.

2. For failing to comply with Form I-9 employment verification requirements (failing to fill out a form), the fines range from $216 to $2,156 per each form.

3. For committing or participating in document fraud for satisfying a requirement benefit of the employment verification process (knowingly accepting and attesting to fraudulent documents of an employee that prove they are authorized to work in the U.S.), the fines range from $445 to $3,563 for each document for the first offense and $3,563 to $8,908 per document for second and subsequent offenses.

4. For committing document abuse (specifying which documents the employee must use or requiring more documents then are legally required to verify they are authorized to work in the U.S. instead of allowing them to choose which documents to use from the list accompanying the Form I-9), the fines range from $178 to $1,782 per violation.

I’ve worked with clients that have several hundred employees who have no Form I-9s completed. They didn’t know or think it was important. I, of course, help them understand how important it is and get them into compliance as soon as possible.

Let’s walk through a fictional scenario with an employer who has 300 employees and has done a poor job of completing Form I-9s.

During an internal audit, they discovered that only 72 of the 300 employees have a Form I-9. These employees were hired in the early days of the company’s history when they had a good HR professional who understood the importance of the document. She left the company several years ago and the company didn’t replace her as they no longer thought HR was important and gave the HR responsibilities to different people in the subsequent years. First the payroll clerk, then the administrative assistant, then to the office manager, and so on.

None of them knew much about the Form I-9 and didn’t complete them when the company’s newly hired employees came on board. The result is 228 employees without a Form I-9.

Had an internal audit not taken place and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) came out to do an audit, they could potentially fine this company 228 missing I-9s X $2,156 maximum fine/missing I-9s = $491,568 for failing to comply with the employment verification requirements by having no Form I-9s for their 228 employees. That’s half a million dollars for failing to fill out a form that takes approximately 10 minutes per employee. That’s half a million dollars the company could use to grow their business. That’s half a million dollars because they didn’t think HR was important and thought anybody could do it. I bet they’d change their mind with a fine this big.

I’ve just focused on the failure to complete Form I-9’s in the above scenario. There is also a huge liability issue with Form I-9’s with mistakes which I will cover when I discuss how to correct mistakes.

Form I-9’s are not trivial. They are to be taken seriously by every employer in the U.S. Today, I just covered the reasons why we need to fill them out and what happens when we don’t. Future posts and podcasts will discuss exactly how to fill out the form, how to conduct an internal audit, how to make make corrections, and the filing and retention requirements.

It’s a big deal that could potentially put a company out of business and will require several posts and episodes to fully cover the topic.