November 23, 2022

How to Navigate Politics in the Workplace

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After each election cycle, many workplaces are bound to experience political tension among employees. When 26% of U.S. workers are participating in political discussions with their colleagues, generic blanket statements and vague processes are not enough to avoid politically-driven interpersonal conflict at work.

Instead, company leaders and HR staff must thoroughly understand the nuanced ways in which politics can impact workers’ lives both in and out of the office. With clear policies and procedures in place, companies can prevent workplace hostility without making employees feel as though their concerns are being ignored.

How Politics Negatively Affects Business

Though civic engagement is certainly valuable, political discord can hold significant implications for individual employees as well as the company if left unchecked. 

For example, groupspeak is a common social phenomenon in which those who hold less common views refrain from speaking up. When this becomes the workplace status quo, these employees are more likely to become isolated from their co-workers and less engaged on the job. Low morale often leads to low productivity, and this can have a broader impact on overall business performance.

This is especially true during election cycles when political discussions become more common. Research conducted in 2017 after the 2016 presidential election found that employees tend to experience at least one of the following negative consequences of political discussions at work: 

  • Reduced productivity
  • Poorer work quality
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Negative view of co-workers
  • Feeling tense or stressed
  • Increased workplace hostility

Given the downstream mental effects of discord between employees, political disagreements can also impact the business as a whole. Aside from productivity and morale issues, political tensions in the workplace may siphon time, energy, and money away from critical business tasks. If a dispute becomes escalated, HR teams may be required to conduct investigations, draft new policy, and address compliance issues.

Political Engagement Looks Different in Remote vs. In-Person Workplace Cultures 

According to SHRM’s 2022 Politics at Work Study, in-person employees are more likely to discuss politics with their colleagues than their hybrid or remote counterparts. Yet, remote and hybrid employees are significantly more likely to say that their employer is respectful of diverse political perspectives among employees. 

This difference in perception of how HR handles political talk in the workplace suggests that how and when employees engage in these conversations can differ depending on the work environment. 

For example, online discussions via Slack or Microsoft Teams allow remote participants to choose their words more carefully, which can help prevent tempers from flaring. Even with careful wording, there is always the chance that someone might misinterpret a written message or get carried away with a point they want to make. However, a remote or hybrid workplace means those who disagree with each other can be intentional about their interactions.

An in-person work setting, on the other hand, provides more opportunities for casual conversation, including current events and recent political news. In these instances, body language cues and non-verbal context can either prevent or lead to disagreements. 

Regardless of where a heated political debate arises, HR leaders should be aware of how the workplace structure impacts employee dynamics so they can proactively address conflict.

How (Not) to Address Political Disagreements in the Workplace

Political leanings have hardened into deeply entrenched identities that employees may or may not bring to the workplace. Though political opinion and affiliation are not protected traits like race, age, or sex, some experts argue it constitutes one of the forms of diversity in a workforce. 

So how are companies to handle employee conflict related to politics? 

Avoid suppressing all political talk

Some experts recommend banning political conversation altogether to avoid discrimination complaints and legal issues. However, this is risky because workers are legally allowed to discuss political issues that relate to their work conditions, such as salary, unions, abortion access, and other protected topics, under the National Labor Relations Act

In addition, though the first amendment of the U.S. constitution doesn’t apply to private-sector employers, some states have their own laws that afford employees and applicants some degree of protection from politics-based discrimination. These state laws are quite limited in their scope, however, and can only be applied in very specific situations.

Focus on common values and goals

While banning talk about politics is both unrealistic and legally risky, employers can approach these issues with the goal of redirecting employees’ focus toward a common purpose. Scott Lieberman, founder of Touchdown Money, encourages employees to rally around team or company goals: “We’re all on the same side when it comes to serving our customers and making a living to care for our families.” 

Similarly, initiatives that focus on cultivating a positive company culture can help avoid heated situations in the first place. Collaboration tools such as Slack, Chanty, or Discord, for example, allow employees to set up social channels based on common interests like fitness or pets. These avenues for collegial friendship help create a foundation of respect that prevents potential political arguments from going too far.

However, in the event that an argument does escalate, HR and management need to be prepared to pursue formal conflict management. This might involve a third-party mediator as well as each employee’s respective manager. Company policy should steer those conversations to keep them as productive as possible.

Let values drive policy

Come election time, even the most cohesive workplace cultures aren’t immune from discord. Only 8% of companies have created policies that specifically address how to have civil political discussions in the workplace. Should conflicts arise, companies need unambiguous anti-bullying and harassment policies and disciplinary processes.

Echoing Lieberman, Emily Miner, Director of Advisory Services at LRN Corporation, emphasizes a values-first approach to establishing and enforcing corporate codes of conduct. A clear connection between a company’s policies and its core values makes it easier for employees to understand why the policy is in place.  

More importantly, Miner stresses the importance of following through on policy: “Companies also need to back up their behavioral expectations (as outlined in the code or policies) with real consequences for not adhering to those standards, so that employees know the company walks the talk.”

After mediating any conflict management conversation, HR should follow up with the employees involved to ensure everyone is on the same page and behaving according to company policy. If the issue persists, the policy should also have a clearly-defined process for taking further action until it’s resolved.

Give employees tools for productive dialogue

Brooks Scott, Executive Coach, Interpersonal Communications Expert, and DEI Strategic Advisor at Merging Path, recommends training on de-escalation techniques as well as company-wide expected norms when disagreements of any kind arise. 

Gathering input for company-wide agreements gives everyone ownership in creating a respectful work climate. Moreover, it creates a social pact that anyone in the company can reference as a reminder.

Create space for conversation and learning about tough topics

With conversational tools and a social contract in place, holding regular meetings to learn about and discuss difficult topics as a company can go a long way in preventing political conflict in the workplace.

LRN Corporation, for example, creates and delivers ethics training to help clients facilitate conversations about respect in the workplace, discrimination and bias, and other potentially difficult topics.

Miner points to LRN Corporation’s own internal townhall discussions as another example of how to address conflict in the workplace: “Leadership has brought everyone together for open townhall discussions…where we talk about the issue as well as what the company plans to do (or has already done).” 

Though LRN’s town hall discussions are an ad hoc measure, holding them routinely before problems crop up cultivates a transparent work climate that can make a significant difference during difficult conversations. 

On an individual level, employee engagement software such as Lattice, intelliHR, and Culture Amp provides a way for employees to voice concerns directly to HR or their manager. This channel is especially important if the employee is experiencing harassment or any other type of policy violation.

HR’s Role in Navigating Political Tension in the Workplace

Regardless of current events, companies should prioritize strong values and work culture to strengthen employee relations and promote physical and psychological safety for everyone in the organization.

However, in spite of efforts and intentions, disagreements can still arise. HR’s role is to be proactive in communicating and enforcing company codes of conduct to ensure employee safety first and foremost, but also to uphold a respectful work atmosphere.

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