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Trump acquitted but his divisive approach continues to play out in workplaces

The collateral damage from former United States president Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial and acquittal will continue for some time as news reports from the US make clear.


The divisive approach of the Trump presidency, aided by social media, resulted in a much more hostile political environment in the US. To a limited extent, perhaps even New Zealand has been affected.

These divisions can play out within the workplace. Examples from both New Zealand and the US point to the wisdom of moderation from both employers and employees alike.

Earlier this year it was reported GitHub in the US dismissed a worker two days after he warned co-workers in Washington to stay safe from Nazis. While it is not certain the exact reason for his dismissal, his employer did believe that the conversation started by the worker was divisive.

The worker told media that the mob that descended on Congress in Washington included people related to neo-Nazi organisations and that he was concerned about the safety of his Jewish family living in Washington. He was also concerned for the safety of his colleagues. He mentioned that some of his family had been killed in the Holocaust.

A backlash against GitHub followed the worker’s dismissal and within 10 days it reversed its position. The company apologised saying it would re-employ the worker and announced that the HR manager who had initially handled the matter had himself resigned.

The apology came after GitHub’s independent investigation found “significant errors of judgment and procedure” concerning the dismissal of the employee.

New Zealand is not immune to extreme political reactions. Only recently Wellington city councillor Rebecca Matthews received a death threat. A member of the public referred to her by a derogatory term on Twitter and allegedly threatened to shoot her.

Matthews complained to police as well as the person’s suspected employer. She also declared she would complain to Netsafe.

Following an internal investigation, insurance broker Aon New Zealand confirmed the threat was made of by one of its employees. It said the person no longer worked for the company. Aon said its culture was one of inclusion diversity and respect. These were core values and there was no place in its team for anyone who exhibited behaviour in conflict with these values.

Both cases show the extremes of political behaviour that seem to be ever more common with the passing of time. Trump certainly stirred people’s emotions. The various forms of social media has meant these extreme statements are given far broader coverage. In both instances it seems people responded quickly and before they exercised judgment preceded by thoughtful reflection.

When expressing strong views, managers and employees should err on the side of caution. Employers are entitled to dismiss an employee whose conduct brings their business into disrepute. Employers will be justified in doing so where they can show they have conducted a fair process and acted as a fair and reasonable employer could.

It is common for people to try to rely on their right to freedom of expression as a shield for their extreme comments. However, the Bill of Rights Act, which enshrines this right, is subject to significant limitations. The act only applies to actions regarding the state, it does not apply to the actions of private enterprises.

The Human Rights Act gives more protection from discrimination against a person for their political opinions. But this protection has been given little consideration in New Zealand, so its exact scope remains unclear.

However, political opinion is unlikely to cloak otherwise bad behaviour. Threatening the life of a city councillor because of their political views is never going to be acceptable and is not an expression of political beliefs.

The moderate expression of political views will normally be protected but harming others will not.