Navigating Politics in the Workplace

Today’s post is written by Joyce Maroney, Executive Director of the Workforce Institute. We checked in with our board members about how to navigate the thorny subject of politics in the workplace.

This week brought us Super Tuesday here in the United States, the day when the greatest number of U.S. states hold primary elections and caucuses. More delegates to the presidential nominating conventions can be won than on any other single day and the wall-to-wall political media coverage we’ve been experiencing for the past several months will only intensify as we move closer to the general election in November.

So, what does this mean for the workplace? In a highly partisan atmosphere like the one we are living in, it may mean increased political discourse in the workplace, leading to increased tension and acrimony. According to this 2019 SHRM survey, more than half of Americans feel that discussions of politics in the workplace have become more common in the last 4 years. That same survey indicated that 42% had been involved in a political argument, and 1 in 10 say they’d personally experienced differential treatment because of their political views or affiliation.

At the Workforce Institute, we were anticipating this situation back in January when we put together our predictions for 2020, one of which was “Guidelines, ground rules, and guardrails (oh my!): Handling political discourse, activism, and the employer-employee relationship in divisive times” where we noted, “In a time of global economic and political turbulence, employers must determine how they’ll manage controversial and potentially divisive dynamics in the workplace.” Employers owe their employees a workplace free of harassment. Where’s the line where they need to step in when it comes to political disputes in the workplace?

With the 2020 election heating up, I checked in with our board members to see what their thoughts were on what organizations can do to prevent the workplace from becoming just another screaming match amongst co-workers with differing political views. Here’s what they had to say:

David Creelman, CEO, Creelman Research

“Employers don’t want employees to stoke divisiveness, resentment and anger by talking about political issues at work. One doesn’t have to be draconian about this, but employees should know that if they start raising political issues they may well be told to stop–and if they don’t stop then there will be more severe consequences. If you are being paid to do a job, anything you do to interfere with that job (such as stoking resentment) is grounds for reprimand. Let employees know that you support their right to advocate for whatever political viewpoints they believe in, but it needs to happen outside of working hours.”

John Hollon, Managing Editor, Fuel50

“I would counsel anyone working for me that there is a good reason why people have generally been urged, for years, to avoid talking about things like politics and religion on the job. It’s because of this: people frequently have deeply held opinions on these subjects that don’t usually make for a low-key, rational discussion. Avoiding such topics on the job shouldn’t be a mandate, but rather, a common-sense suggestion given how inflammatory and unproductive such conversations can be. A cordial and productive workplace is never, ever improved by a heated political discussion, and given the tenor and tone of the times, just about all political discussions are like that these days. It may be our right to have that discussion, but it will greatly inhibit your workplace culture when such discussions become frequent and larger than life.”

Chris Mullen, Director, Strategic HR Advisory, Kronos

“Employers need to be careful how they handle this extremely touchy subject when it is so important to many of their employees. Creating or having a policy where employees are forbidden to discuss politics is not the answer. This only invites resentment and lawsuits from employees. But on the flip side, allowing employees to just openly say anything they want can lead to arguments, dislike for others with opposing views, and, a climate where people feel attacked. These results hinder morale, productivity and positive culture.

Employers need to find a way to meet both sides in the middle. This year of all years, it might behoove employers to develop training to help employees better understand how to interact with one another on such polarizing topics such as the election. The bottom line is that all efforts should aim to promote mutual respect and civility among employees.”

What do you think of our board members insights on this issue? What have you seen in your own workplace that works – or doesn’t? Tell us about it in the comments section.

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