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Politics & Potential Pitfalls in the Workplace

The political climate in this day and age is more charged than it has been in decades. This can create problems in the workplace—notably because not everyone’s political opinions will match. While differing opinions are a fact of life, too much disagreement can actually create a hostile work environment. South Carolina law has a few peculiarities on the subject of political opinion that can complicate an already delicate situation. It is important that you know your rights.

Potential For Hostile Work Environment

Politics is one of the most potentially volatile subjects to bring up at work. If the disagreements go too far, it can very easily give rise to a hostile work environment. Both the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission (SCHAC) define a hostile work environment as harassment that is discriminatory in nature and has risen to the level of making one’s job impossible to perform. If you feel as though you must endure harassment and teasing in order to keep your job, it is a major clue that you are experiencing a hostile work environment.

Politics affect each person differently, especially in today’s highly volatile climate, and as such, it can be the gateway to mistreatment of certain employees based on real or perceived characteristics. It is possible for your environment at work to be hostile even if the alleged characteristic you are being harassed over does not exist. While mere teasing is not sufficient to file a complaint, teasing can be one component of a claim. This is because, very often, a workplace may develop into a hostile environment as a result of unchecked teasing against one employee.

South Carolina Law Is Unique

Saying the harassment must be “discriminatory in nature” is another way of stating that the harassment must be based on a protected characteristic. Normally, this would only apply to those characteristics covered by federal antidiscrimination laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—such as race, gender, national origin, or religion, among others. However, South Carolina has an unusual law that protects employees from being fired over their political opinion or their “exercise of political rights and privileges.” A handful of other states also protect political opinion along with the other common characteristics.

It is important to note, however, that neither “political opinion” nor “exercise of political rights and privileges” is explicitly defined in the law, which means that a court will usually decide these types of cases individually, interpreting the specific facts in each one. An employer found to have unlawfully acted against an employee on the basis of political opinion can be found guilty of a misdemeanor, never mind the proceedings that the employee would likely bring in civil court.

Seek Experienced Legal Counsel

As the old saw goes, the personal is political, and sometimes that can be weaponized against one person or a group out of step with the norm. If you believe that you may have a claim for hostile work environment due to political disagreements, contacting a lawyer is a good idea.

Attorney A. Christopher Potts has handled many of these cases and is happy to sit down with you to answer questions about yours. Contact Hitchcock & Potts today to schedule an initial appointment.

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