May 12, 2021
6 Tips for Handling Political Discussions in the Workplace

Over the last several years, political discussions have become more polarized than ever. Unfortunately, people often struggle to have a civil discourse if they disagree on certain hot button topics. Many take personal offense if another person disagrees with their opinions or beliefs, while others lack respect for those who don’t share their views.

While it’s best to avoid political discussions in the workplace, let’s face it—they happen. A 2017 Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey found that 26% of Americans admit to talking politics in the workplace. It’s no surprise, with 2016 being an election year.

Additionally, a 2017 American Psychological Association study found that: 

  • 26% of people said that political debates at work had them feeling tense, a significant boost from 17% in 2016.
  • 21% said they felt more cynical and negative at work because of political talk (up from 15%).
  • 40% said the divisive political environment had led to at least one negative outcome (e.g., poorer work quality, lower productivity, or a negative view of fellow employees).

So, how do human resource teams and company leaders manage political discussions in the workplace? How can you keep them at bay and maintain an environment of respect? And what can you do (and not do) in the unfortunate case that a political conversation turns heated?

The key is in not ignoring it or acting like it won’t occur. Instead, leaders must manage their teams transparently and establish clear guidelines for civil discourse. You can do your best to mitigate it and train your managers to do the same, but it’s also essential to know how to handle political discussions when they do arise.

Easier said than done, right? Let’s look at six tips, so you know what to do when you hear employees talking politics at work.

1. Create a policy on political speech and activity at work.

It all starts with emphasizing and fostering a culture of mutual respect and consideration. 

Jennifer Rodriguez, a labor and employment attorney in the Dallas office of law firm Culhane Meadows, recommends, “Language that’s harassing or negatively impacts working relationships will not be tolerated” as a standard line in every political discussion and activity policy.

This policy should address things like: 

  • Whether or not political clothing and materials can be worn/used in the workplace.
  • Sharing political views and content via work emails.
  • Using work time to share political views on social media.
  • What qualifies as an opinion, and what is considered harassment.
  • Decorating offices and cubicles with political messaging is not protected under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Make it clear that this policy is not discriminating against a specific person or group of individuals based on their political affiliations and legal activities outside of work. Let them know that the organization values everyone’s differences and unique perspectives. Reinforce the fact that this is part of an effort to create a safe and respectful workplace.

Keep in mind that this policy may overlap with others, such as your company’s discrimination, harassment, social media, and dress code policies. This is fine and we encourage a specific policy on politics, as long as your policies don’t conflict with one another.

2. Communicate expectations and hold regular training sessions.

Remind people which topics are off-limits at work and review the policy regularly (which should also be included in the employee handbook). 

Hold regular training sessions on showing respect to coworkers, but don’t focus specifically on politics as this can spark conflict. Instead, discuss discrimination, harassment, and professional conduct. Employers should also have specific training for leaders and managers on recognizing and dealing with political debates, discrimination, and harassment issues when they arise.

Tensions can become exceptionally high during times like election years. Send email reminders regularly, especially around elections and other political events. Encourage respect, sensitivity, and consideration. Remind individuals that if they cannot bring themselves to listen and have an open, respectful, two-way conversation, they should say nothing.

3. Know what you can do…

As a private company, you set the rules for the workplace and what language is and is not acceptable. The First Amendment only prohibits the government from restricting free speech, meaning it only applies to public-sector employees. Private-sector employees cannot enforce the First Amendment against their employer.

If one employee crosses a line with a political expression that a colleague views as harassment or insulting, HR and leadership can and should address it. Discussing topics like walls and borders, gun control and safety, and LGBTQ rights and issues can quickly become personal and hostile—so it’s best to keep them off-limits. 

Employers can also ban activities like: 

  • Political soliciting and campaigning on work premises.
  • Wearing political attire, from clothing to buttons and stickers.
  • Decorating the office or cubicle with unprotected political or campaign messaging.

Your political conversation and activity policy should specifically outline these rules.

4. …And what you can’t do.

Restricting employee conversations too strictly or specifically is not recommended. The NLRA allows private-sector employees to engage in “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid,” meaning they can’t be fired for discussing wages, hours, or working conditions.

Additionally, many states have laws against coercing, influencing, or discriminating against employees for their political and voting activities. In a few jurisdictions, political expression and activities are protected categories under their anti-discrimination laws. Check your state and local laws to know for sure what you can and cannot prohibit as an employer.

5. Set an example as a leader.

It all starts at the top. Management should not talk politics or discuss which candidate(s) they support. This can intimidate employees if they disagree, who might worry they’ll be treated differently. Plus, leadership should be the first to follow company policy and demonstrate expected professional conduct.

A few other ways company leaders can help create a safe and non-divisive work culture include:

  • Not airing their political views publicly on social media.
  • Not making jokes about specific candidates or political topics.
  • Keeping meetings free of politics.
  • Keeping political shows and content off of televisions.

Most of all, business leaders should make all employees feel welcome and comfortable in the workplace.

6. Monitor political discussions and be prepared to act when necessary.

Even with a policy in place, frequent communication and training, and positive examples from leadership, contentious political debates can occur. Both HR and management need to be observant and ready to handle these occurrences.

To stay in tune with their staff and be prepared to maintain a respectful environment, managers should:

  • Listen and stay engaged with employees by regularly walking around the office.
  • Interject when necessary before a political discussion becomes heated and remind people it’s ok to have different opinions.
  • Not wait for the debate to become aggressive, disrespectful, threatening, or physical.
  • Put an end to offensive comments right away and tell the employee it is not acceptable.
  • Investigate every complaint and follow up with the employee who submitted it by thanking them and informing them it is being handled appropriately.

Be prepared to hold people accountable if they violate the policy and be consistent. Hold all employees to this policy and the same standards of respect.

Putting a policy in place and navigating political discussions in the workplace is a very delicate matter. Even with the best of intentions, issues can arise, and people can get offended. Not to mention, heated debates can distract employees and affect productivity and morale.

If you need help establishing a policy or conducting training on what to do when people start talking politics at the office, contact BlueLion today at 603-818-4131 or info@bluelionllc.com. Our HR pros will guide you through it every step of the way while protecting your company and employees.

The information on this website, including its newsletters, is not, nor is it intended to be legal advice. You should contact an attorney or HR specialist for advice on your individual situation.

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