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A voting precinct in the District of Columbia. Credit: Mike Scarcella / NLJ

The divisive run-up to the midterm elections has proven ripe for workplace discussions about politics, exposing employers to anti-discrimination and hostile workplace issues and forcing them to grapple with the scope of protections for speech and social media use.

Private employers largely have the power to restrict political-related activity during work time, but keeping politics completely out of the office—for instance, group discussions on email or at the water cooler—may prove difficult to enforce and monitor. Companies must balance among speech protections, minimizing hostile work environments and running afoul of certain state provisions, management lawyers say.

“You might overhear at the water cooler workers loudly debating about candidates. You want them to get back to work, but is it a good idea to restrict these conversations?” said Meryl Gutterman, counsel with ADP Small Business Services, during a recent webinar that spotlighted managing political talk in the workplace. “It may not be in your best interest to stifle. It also may be unlawful to tell certain employees that certain conversations can’t be held in the workplace.”

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