Diners don't want a side order of debate with their meal.

With today’s contentious political climate, more and more people have steadfast opinions on the major issues and are debating and fighting with friends or co-workers either in person or on social media—where things can quickly get out of hand.

People go to restaurants to eat, socialize, and post pictures of their meals. Most patrons don’t expect a side order of political debate with their servers. That’s why many restaurants have rules in place to keep employees from talking politics and getting customers riled up.

Licia Gliptis, vice president for Restaurant Consultants, Inc., College Park, Maryland, says employees have a responsibility to keep their personal political thoughts off the job.

“Even in a city like D.C., that has historical restaurants that cater to one party or the other, I think all staff should work on being accommodating and welcoming to everyone, no matter what side of the aisle they vote for,” she says. “Employees are an extension of the brand and [owners] need to not allow a staff’s personal opinions to be to the detriment of the restaurant.”

Nannina Angioni, a labor and employment attorney and partner with the Los Angeles-based law firm Kaedian LLP, says it’s always a good idea to have clear guidelines in place for employees because when expectations on both sides of the relationship are clear, you see fewer issues. 

“Still, having rules in a handbook or printed in a memo isn’t enough. Many employees never take a second look at the handbook after orientation or the first work meeting,” she says. “Employers need to know their own rules cold. Supervisors and managers should be trained to refer to the rules and have the know-how to carry them out in the workplace.”

Rules that provide an employee with a clear path to management, with options for handling workplace conflict, are key to a successful work environment. Besides, allowing a staff to say whatever is on their mind can be harmful to the restaurant and its reputation.

“Any number of things could happen if restaurant staff start arguing with a customer over political views, from negative Yelp reviews, to a Facebook post that goes viral, and there is a slim chance that any such encounter could have a positive effect on the restaurant’s business,” Angioni says.

“I by no means am trying to squash anyone’s rights, but we make it clear our customers experience should be dictated by them and not by us.” — Gavin Coleman, owner of The Dubliner

Gretchen Van Vlymen, head of HR at StratEx, a human resources software and consulting firm focused on the restaurant industry, says having a code of conduct is vital, not so much saying people can’t express their personal views but that they must do so in a way that meets this code.

“That means showing respect for co-workers and customers and if they are going to express opinions, to do so in a professional way and to respect the opinions of others, even when they differ from their own,” she says.

Van Vlymen notes that even if someone overhears customers talking about a subject they are passionate about, they shouldn’t butt in.

“Restaurants should drive home the fact: is this really the most appropriate time to discuss politics? You are a server and have a job to do and you should focus on giving your customers the best service you can give them. Diving into a heated political conversation is not doing anybody any good,” Van Vlymen says.

Incidents Do Happen

In 2011, a waitress was fired from an Outback Steakhouse in Crystal Lake, Illinois, claiming it was because she was wearing a bracelet advocating for the Tea Party, and customers complained to her boss, though the restaurant claims her dismissal had nothing to do with it. Angioni says that could have led to a messy legal fight if rules weren’t in place.

And a Rhode Island state legislator who worked as a waitress for Classic Café in Providence, Rhode Island, was fired after owner Raymond Burns warned her that political talk was interfering with her shift, and he saw a scathing review online because of it, according to a story that appeared in the Associated Press. Having rules written down about such talk backed up his decision.

Gavin Coleman, owner of The Dubliner, an Irish restaurant across the street from the Capitol in Washington, D.C., has a steady stream of politicians and politically minded customers coming in, and understands the importance of keeping his staff in line, and has developed a protocol to keep political talk at bay.

“We make a point of not engaging in any political talk. We are a family restaurant and we have a conversation with all of our employees about who our customers are and what we expect of them,” he says. “I by no means am trying to squash anyone’s rights, but we make it clear our customers experience should be dictated by them and not by us.”

Over the years, everyone from President Barrack Obama to Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil to some of the leading Republicans and lobbyists have stopped in for a bite, and Coleman makes sure that all conversations between staff and patrons are respectful.

“We’ve had all sides of the political spectrum and talking views doesn’t serve you well in any regard. Agreeing with them or disagreeing with them would be alienating us with some other groups,” he says. “I tell my staff we don’t want to be known for catering to one section or demographic.”

Coleman recalls an incident where someone was drinking at the bar and tried to engage the bartender in talk about immigration issues.

“Political debates often come about when people are drinking and I tell my staff to keep it to quick answers, don’t engage, and don’t argue,” he says. “If they need to, they can remove themselves from the situation and I will step in.”

Feature, Labor & Employees