Addressing Political Discussions at Work

We are living in unprecedented times. Politics consumes discourse, and polarization causes rifts in families and friendships. While political discussions in the workplace aren’t necessarily inappropriate, such conversations can interfere with work relationships, productivity, reputation/brand of the company, morale, and possibly even the civil rights of employees. It can also alienate customers or clients. So it’s critical that employees remind themselves when they are in a space where they can and should openly share their political opinions and when those opinions can have negative consequences on their employer brand, their working relationships, and their career.

So, how does one prevent political conflict from impacting the workplace? One word: respect.

On Respect

Respecting one’s co-workers means accepting that not everyone views current events or public policy debates the same way. Often an employee’s presumption that everyone in the room agrees with their particular political beliefs can cause that employee to offend co-workers or third parties unintentionally. Discussing “political” topics might also create a hostile work environment for other employees if it relates to a protected class, such as race or religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, etc. For this reason, it is essential to recognize when an opinion or conversation is about public policy or the experiences and civil liberties of a protected class.

While you may feel passionate about an issue, subject or politician, think about whether work is the appropriate place to discuss it. Inflammatory subjects create a distraction from getting the job done. There is also a business case for avoiding discussing conflicting political views at work. They can cause rifts between teammates, damage workflows, decrease productivity, and ultimately hurt both individual and collective performance. With this in mind, it’s important that employees recognize when they have said something that rubbed a co-worker the wrong way and know how to recover from that.

Being a Brand Ambassador

Whether employees realize it or not, they are representatives of their organization. So what is said on social media reflects on their organization and their team. While posting very passionate or even inflammatory comments on social media may seem like a good idea at that moment, it could ultimately have damaging effects on an employer’s brand and the poster’s career. That moment of relief is never worth the potential fallout that may follow a particularly harsh social media post. Our new microlesson, Politics: Pause Before You Post, illustrates this point.

There is no first amendment right to talk about politics at work when you work for a private employer, but several states have laws that protect off-duty political activities. However, those laws do not necessarily protect speech that causes negative impacts on the workplace, as heated political, social media posts often do. Here are some best practices:

  • Avoid discussing controversial topics at work.
  • Do not discuss controversial subjects on social media if:
    • You have followers who are co-workers.
    • You are connected to clients, customers, or vendors of the company.
    • You have identified yourself as an employee of the company or given any impression that you are speaking for the company.

What is an employer to do?

If your workforce is particularly prone to polarizing political discussions, think about having a policy that is neutral as to subject matter but prohibits employees from wearing or bringing items to work that include slogans or logos. Consistency in enforcing the rules is critical. A BLM T-Shirt should be treated the same as a “Make America Great Again” Hat. It is important to remember that policy should not condemn ideologies or political views. Rather it should prohibit the open expression of ideas that are potentially polarizing through the use of merchandise or other graphic representations of certain movements or campaigns. Not all polarizing issues are political, but they can still stir a pot that is better left untouched in the workplace. Employers should also consider a social media policy to help get these best practices across.

Another important consideration: with so many employees working from home in the era of COVID, one’s personal and professional lives are less distinct than ever before. Employers must balance the desire of the employees to express themselves politically while protecting the workplace from unproductive distractions. Questions on how to handle an employee taking a video call in front of a political poster or wearing clothing with political slogans or logos in the comfort of their own home are likely to cause controversy among employees.

The election is upon us, and if you haven’t seen these issues pop up yet, they are sure to occur in the days following November 3rd. So arm your workforce with the social and emotional intelligence tools needed to navigate and respect differing viewpoints and stay out of hot water with co-workers or clients.

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Addressing Political Discussions at Work
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