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House Divided: Handling Political Divisions in the Workplace

Cymone Carlson, SHRM-SCP
by Cymone Carlson, SHRM-SCP on October 12, 2022

With Election Day right around the corner and increased interest in political discourse, some political conversations will inevitably find their way into the workplace. While some employees will politely agree to disagree with their coworkers regarding differences in political opinion, what about those employees who take a more confrontational approach to have their opinion heard?

While it is a person’s right to express their beliefs in their day-to-day life, what should you do when political rhetoric starts to cause hostility or bullying in the workplace? Here are some suggestions on how to handle politics in the workplace.

Be Cautious About Outright Banning Political Talk

While it may be a good policy to prohibit employees from discussing politics within earshot of customers, banning political conversations altogether may have the unintended effect of making employees feel as though they are walking on eggshells. Many of today’s big political issues concern topics like equality and basic human rights, which to some people are bigger than politics and may not seem like politically motivated talk. Making employees second-guess every word they say could have an adverse effect on your workplace culture and the flow of information.

Conversations regarding labor and working conditions can also be considered political discussions. Trying to quash this type of discussion can run afoul of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Conversations on topics such as pay and working conditions are protected speech, regardless of whether it occurs during work hours or on an employee’s own time, and prohibiting this form of political discourse can open your company up to legal action.

Establish Guidelines and Address Inappropriate Comments

Instead of steering employees away from all manner of political conversation, establish standards on acceptable behavior. Remind employees of your company’s equal employment, anti-discrimination, and anti-harassment policies, and that violations of these policies will not be tolerated. As some political topics may involve elements of race, country of origin, gender, religion, and other aspects that are protected by various employment laws, employees should take care when making comments that could be seen as discriminatory. Foster a company culture that values diversity and sees the strength that having employees from various backgrounds, including political ones, can bring to the company as a whole.

If an employee makes comments that violate your company policies or creates a tense workplace, address them immediately. Make it clear to the employee that, while you do not bar employees from having political conversations, you will not tolerate behavior that harms workplace culture. If an employee continues to make comments that violate company policy or repeatedly elevates respectful conversation to a screaming match, make sure you are clear that corrective action is due to the manner of their personal conduct, and not for the subject matter of the discussion.

Don’t Force Uninterested Parties to Engage in Political Talk

Not everyone is interested in having political discussions in the workplace. Because of this, you should make it clear to your employees that no one will be forced to discuss or otherwise engage in political discussion. Employees not interested in political conversations should also feel empowered to tell their coworkers that they are not interested in being involved in these conversations as well. Having the freedom to choose when and how to engage in such discussions, if any, will contribute toward a more open and less hostile work environment.

To avoid indirectly involving unwilling participants, you may want to consider prohibiting employees from wearing political clothing or displaying political paraphernalia at work. Employees also should be prohibited from taking any political action in the workplace or during work hours, such as canvassing or soliciting political donations. Lastly, consider keeping political programs off the television or radio in the workplace, including break rooms.

Emphasize Respect

As a manager, stay proactive about maintaining respect within the workplace, not just with regard to political conversations but with all interactions. If you notice an employee belittling, speaking aggressively to, or mocking coworkers, address it immediately. If you maintain a workplace culture founded on respect for fellow coworkers, conversations about hot-button topics will tend to be more amiable.

Be An Example

As a manager, employees are watching your behavior and the examples you set for the company. If you are constantly talking about supporting one candidate or political party over another, this could make employees with differing opinions feel intimidated or worried about disparate treatment if they were to speak up about their views. As a manager, you should also be careful about what types of political posts you make on social media; if an employee were to find this information, they most likely would disclose this to coworkers, which would have the same effect as if you made the same comment at work.

Keep in mind that whatever steps you take in managing political conversations in the workplace, you should take the same action regardless of an employee’s political leanings. For instance, if you allow one employee to wear a campaign button for a certain candidate you should not chastise another employee for wearing something similar for an opposing candidate. Managers should also encourage employees to speak up without fear of retaliation if a coworker takes their political discussions too far. If you find yourself managing a politically active group of employees and need additional guidance on how to maintain a productive work environment, feel free to reach out to your HR Consultant to help walk you through the process.

Cymone Carlson, SHRM-SCP
Cymone Carlson, SHRM-SCP

Cymone Carlson is a FrankAdvice Sr. Human Resources Consultant. She is a Senior Certified Professional in Human Resources (SHRM-SCP) and holds a Master’s degree from the University of Florida. Cymone has firsthand HR experience working within nonprofits, manufacturing, distribution, healthcare, hospitality, and government contracts.