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It’s going to be a fraught political year. Let’s be respectful of each other at work

With a rematch brewing between President Joe Biden and ex-President Donald Trump, Nov. 5 is shaping up to be among the most divisive elections ever. The us-versus-them rhetoric on both sides is disturbing. And given the shameful attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters on Jan. 6, 2021, additional political violence is a chilling but real possibility.

For employers and their workers, welcome to a minefield. The divisions evident in the electorate inevitably will show up in workplaces across the country.

At Walgreens’ corporate annual meeting earlier this year, a shareholder proposal anticipating potential trouble ahead called for special protections for politically conservative employees. The company, based in suburban Chicago, urged voting against it, saying its existing protections are sufficient, and the proposal went down with just 8.2 million votes in favor, and almost 600 million cast against it.

Walgreens is among many companies dealing with today’s partisan political divisions, and, despite the lopsided shareholder vote supporting the status quo, this year is unlikely to be business as usual. From the top down, it’s best for people to be cautious about flaunting their political convictions, be they center, right or left.

That gets harder when companies are dragged into political controversies, as Walgreens is with its decision, along with rival pharmacy chain CVS, to sell abortion pills in Illinois and other states where it’s legal to do so.

As much as companies would like to sidestep political controversies, today’s fevered discourse can make it impossible. High-profile examples such as Disney’s recently settled legal dispute with Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida hint at many less-visible controversies at companies nationwide.

The Environmental, Social and Governance programs common to Walgreens, CVS, Disney and many other leading companies have become targets of far-right attacks — especially Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives facing new legal challenges as a conservative U.S. Supreme Court rethinks civil rights in America.

On the left, activists have threatened to boycott companies they perceive as caving in to pressure from the right, as when California Gov. Gavin Newsom joined a chorus of Walgreens critics upset last year when the company said it would not sell abortion pills in states where the medications are prohibited by law. “California won’t be doing business with Walgreens, or any company that cowers to extremists and puts women’s lives at risk,” Newsom declared at the time.

For employees working under conditions that feel fraught, we humbly suggest restraint. Be circumspect about sharing political viewpoints at work. Save the MAGA hat and “Eat the Rich” attire for off-duty hours. Tread lightly. Be respectful.

We recognize this advice runs counter to a trendy philosophy of workplace behavior. For a decade now, employees at many companies have been encouraged to “bring their whole selves to work.” Especially for younger workers, the ability to express their authentic selves has become an important factor in job satisfaction.

Still, every worker should be aware that being personally outspoken can come with risks. Private employers have a lot of leeway in employment decisions. And unlike gender, race or other demographic characteristics, a particular political viewpoint is not a protected class under federal law — though political affiliation can’t be used as a pretext for illegal employment discrimination.

Some states and cities have more specific protections, as do many public employees and other union workers. California is notable for a state law protecting workers who express their political beliefs and engage in lawful political activities, and Illinois provides some spotty support. Those protections may expand, as the Illinois legislature considers a union-backed bill that would prevent companies in the state from retaliating against employees who skip workplace meetings about politics or religion.

But good luck enforcing those protections: If an office meeting veers into politics, would Illinois then intervene? That’s a nonstarter, in our view. For good reason, the law continues to favor the rights of private employers to make their own decisions about hiring, firing, promoting and disciplining their workers.

In its response to the shareholder proposal asking it to make special provisions for its conservative employees, Walgreens repeated its long-standing commitment to respecting diversity of expression and refusing to tolerate harassment or discrimination. We agree with the company that no special provision was needed to expand on those and other state-of-the-art policies that it has publicly championed.

At the same time, each of Walgreens’ roughly 330,000 employees need to use good judgment to do their jobs without prompting any mini-insurrections — and that goes for the rest of us too. This upcoming election will be tough, no matter how it turns out. Let’s meet it with some self-discipline and our best instincts.

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