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If political talk disrupts a workplace, bosses must step in

NEW YORK (AP) — With the next presidential election a little over a year away, small business owners will likely start seeing employees spending more time discussing politics. For many owners, that can be a problem because chats about politics can run on, cutting into productivity. Other bosses find that passions can run high when staffers disagree about candidates and where they stand on issues.

Owners who find that political discussions are a problem have the law on their side if they want to limit the chatter. "There is no right to freedom of speech in a private work place," says James McDonald, an employment law attorney with Fisher Phillips in Irvine, California. So owners have the right to tell staffers that political discussions are banned during work hours, and limited to breaks and lunch hours, McDonald says.

Still, discussions will start spontaneously, and owners might want to allow some chatting, much as they would a rehash of last night's game or employees comparing notes on their weekends. These conversations can help cement bonds between co-workers. If any discussion goes on for too long, owners can give staffers a reminder that there's work to do.

But owners need to be on the lookout for conversations that escalate into arguments that are disruptive, or comments about candidates or voters that constitute sexual harassment or discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, national origin, gender or age. Employees need to know that company policy prohibits harassment and discrimination, McDonald says.

If the decibel and tension levels in the office rise because of political differences, bosses may need to step in to prevent the discussions from disrupting the workplace for everyone. A reminder to staffers to keep their discussions respectful is in order, McDonald says. If they keep getting into loud arguments, their behavior may become a performance and disciplinary matter.

Owners should also be wary about joining political discussions. If they or their managers make comments about a candidate's race, religion, national origin or age, it could offend a staffer and down the line be a contributing factor in a discrimination charge, McDonald says.

Follow Joyce Rosenberg at www.twitter.com/JoyceMRosenberg . Her work can be found here: https://apnews.com

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