“Divisive” might be the best word to describe the 2020 presidential election. The same could be said for the 2016 election, for that matter. Last year, as we did in 2016, we saw a rise in political discussions in and out of the workplace following the 2020 election cycle.
That said, GlassDoor’s 2020 Politics at Work survey finds the fear of discussing politics in the workplace is on the rise, with 60% of employees reporting that they believe discussing politics at work could negatively impact their career opportunities.
The same survey found that 60% of employees reported thinking it was inappropriate to discuss politics in the workplace. Still, 57% also said they have done just that at some point.
Not only is the discussion of politics affecting how work is getting done, it’s also affecting employee morale and collaboration. A Gartner study from 2020 found 26% of employees saying the last election has had a moderate or significant impact on their ability to do their jobs.
Gartner also found 47% of employees reporting that the 2020 election has affected their ability to get work done. The discussion of politics in the workplace has had primarily negative effects on employee morale, collaboration efforts and productivity.
We’ve also seen a rise in companies using their brand influence to support political movements. A 2020 Perceptyx survey found 67% of employees indicating their company urges its employees to vote, with 50% saying their company encourages its employees to be politically active outside of work.
While it is not common for companies to publicly back a specific politician or openly support a political party, companies have made political statements in other ways. In 2020, we saw a rise in the number of companies encouraging their employees to vote. We saw a rise in awareness of the COVID-19 virus and companies urging their employees to not only adhere to social distancing and preventative measures, but also to be a voice in directing social change. We have seen companies embrace human rights movements, most notably following the death of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
All of these movements — no matter how noble they are at their core — have been highly politicized. It’s only natural that the important discussions these movements have sparked have trickled into office conversations. The election hasn’t just brought about corporate culture change. There’s also been a change in American culture. The discussion of politics and politically charged movements is not the type of off-limits topic that it might have been in years past.
“While it is not common for companies to publicly back a specific politician or openly support a political party, companies have made political statements in other ways.”
So, what’s the solution? Do politics have a place in the office, or should discussing politically charged topics around the proverbial water cooler be considered completely unacceptable in the corporate world?
With the changes made to American culture during the 2016 and 2020 elections, banning political conversation in the workplace outright is not an effective long-term solution to the divisiveness that marks the current state of play in U.S. politics.
Instead, management needs to cultivate an environment where diversity and inclusion is celebrated, not simply tolerated. So, if the question isn’t how to stop political discussions in the workplace, the question must be how to make sure that employees are aware of the expectations and limitations of what is permissible to be discussed in the workplace.
So what can organizational leaders do to foster an environment that is productive and inoffensive? There are a few ways that HR and management teams can create a civilized work atmosphere.
According to Rebecca Starr, area vice president at Gallagher, the key to creating a civilized workplace is in making sure that the company’s expectations are clearly communicated and employees feel heard and supported. The organization’s leadership team has a responsibility to make clear what will and will not be tolerated, in terms of political conversations in the workplace.
“While ensuring workforce and workplace equality helps contribute to a civil society, broader issues can lead to community unrest that impacts employee safety and business operations,” said Starr. “Preparation is the best defense — along with a detailed response plan.”
Starr pointed to the 2020 Q4 Gallagher Better Works Insights Report, which discussed how the social justice conversations that were sparked during the 2020 election have signaled a change in not just corporate culture, but also the country’s culture.
“In a national election year occurring during a global pandemic, leaders are confronting both political and economic uncertainties,” said Dean Clune, the divisional vice president at Gallagher Better Works. “New challenges, opportunities and complexities continue to require thinking differently about workplace culture, cost management and community inclusion.”
HR leaders should also focus on clearly articulating the policy’s goals and the prohibited activities and behaviors, as well as disciplinary action taken if the policy is broken, according to Gartner.
Organizations should consider which forms of political expression are most likely to have the greatest impact on their workplace, rather than attempting to shut down all forms of political expression. HR leaders should work with managers to ensure the policies are enforced consistently.
In order to truly create and maintain a civilized workplace, HR leaders and management need to have a specific set of goals and policies concerning political conversation and potential harassment cases concerning differing political ideals. Check federal, local and state laws concerning employers regulating employees’ speech and workplace activity and devise and implement a practical and inclusive series of regulations. After implementing these regulations, managers and HR leaders should work together to ensure expectations are clear and being properly followed.
“These trying times are uniting people, but also dividing them,” said Starr. “Community unrest about social injustices has driven the topics of diversity, equality and inclusion to the forefront of cultural dialogue once again, and this movement is empowering employees to candidly discuss workplace equality with colleagues, managers, HR and executive leadership.”
Diffusing Tension, Accepting Differences
Managers and HR staff can only be as effective as the tools and training they are given. When it comes to helping employees settle a workplace political dispute, managers, supervisors and HR employees who are unprepared will struggle to help mediate an effective solution for all involved parties.
“To ensure employees remain focused and feel safe at work,” said Caroline Walsh, vice president in the Gartner HR practice, “HR leaders must train managers, so they are well-equipped to support employees during the election process and deal with political conflict within their teams.”
By training your leadership staff with specific information and policy on how to uphold company stances concerning political workplace discussion, leaders will have a series of procedures and will better know how to uphold company policy regarding political discussion, while also being able to mitigate interpersonal disputes regarding political beliefs.
In the aforementioned Gartner survey, 29% of employees witnessed the mistreatment of a co-worker in 2020, stemming from disagreements over their political beliefs, whether it was being called offensive names, being avoided by colleagues or being subjected to unfair treatment.
“Understand co-workers will certainly have different beliefs … still, there is an expectation of respectful professional interactions between everyone, and leaders have to model the behavior themselves and lead by example.”
With regard to management, employees have reported fears that their political beliefs will have detrimental effects on their career growth. According to Perceptyx, 46% of employees worry they would be treated differently if they openly disagreed with their manager’s political beliefs, and 53% of employees believe discussing politics at work could negatively affect their career opportunities.
Politics can indeed be a powder keg in the work- place, and employees can perceive a colleague’s disagreement with their stance on a given issue as a personal attack, regardless of whether that was the intention. This isn’t an issue that HR leaders and management can resolve, but it can be controlled.
“Understand co-workers will certainly have different beliefs,” said Starr. “Still, there is an expectation of respectful professional interactions between everyone, and leaders have to model the behavior themselves and lead by example.”
It’s the responsibility of those in management positions to communicate and exemplify the company culture. Managers and HR employees need to be able to both explain and embody the expectations of civility and tolerance the company wishes to uphold. If management and HR officials do not have a complete understanding of company expectations to follow and show respect for policies on political conversation and tolerance, other employees won’t either.
“Those who don’t articulate a culture that encourages civility, understanding and acceptance in the context of their mission, values and brand will find themselves without a framework for answering questions from their current employees, prospective employees and the consumers of their goods and services,” said Starr. “This in turn will create risk, as their answers may appear arbitrary or political; and where there is a void, people will make assumptions, removing from the company any ability to guide their own narrative and ultimately undermining their brand.”
The truth is differences in beliefs are not some- thing that people will ever see eye to eye on. People’s political beliefs are typically deeply rooted in personal experience. With tensions being so high from a tumultuous and divisive election year, people may still feel raw and may feel the need to defend their beliefs when they feel as though someone disagrees or is challenging what they believe in.
Companies need to make commitments to a diverse, inclusive and safe work environment for those in their workforce.
“I think this starts and ends with social connectedness,” said Starr. “Think about one of our primary needs to receive attention, whether it be social connectedness or relatedness. People need to be cared about, cared for by others and to feel like they are contributing to the greater good. Employees expect support that meets them where they are. Employees look to leaders for support.
Healthiest workplaces have a culture of trust, acceptance and support.”