No matter how much you try to tune it out, you can’t hide from political coverage. It’s on TV, podcasts, sports talk shows, and in nearly every social media post, tweet, pin, or snap.
Even the place where politics was historically off limits is now no longer safe… the office.
Political tensions in the workplace were high during last year’s election cycle, with 26% of employers sensing greater political volatility and 57% of Americans saying the political climate caused them stress. Nearly a year after the presidential election, political friction remains in workplaces:
- 31% of workers say their company’s productivity level has decreased because of political expressions.
- 31% of people have witnessed co-workers arguing about politics.
So how should employees and leadership handle political discussions at work? Do you engage in these taboo conversations and risk infighting and damaging the company culture? Or do you ban political talk altogether and undermine employees with draconian measures?
Should politics be off-limits?
Private companies have the freedom to impose broad limits on political discussions during work hours, but is that pragmatic? First of all, enforcing a ban on political discussions is nearly impossible, unless you want to establish a culture of micromanagement, intrusive monitoring, and incessant finger-pointing among employees.
Stifling discussions is also incongruent with modern-day workplace practices. Workers aren’t cogs in a company’s operation who show up to complete a task, clock out, and return to their normal selves after hours. Employees are people who bring their whole selves to work and engage in collaborative discussions to solve business challenges and create innovative products and services.
We can’t check our humanity at the office door, because of the outdated concept that experiencing emotions at work is somehow unprofessional. Politics is often an emotional topic because government policies impact our deeply-held beliefs and values. If people suppress their feelings and emotions, that can build stress which ultimately impacts their work. Being able to safely express feelings at the office isn’t unprofessional, it’s humane.
Still, that doesn’t mean the office should be a perpetual segment of Meet the Press, especially if it hinders productivity. Here are some tips on how leadership and employees can approach politics and maintain productivity and civility at work.
Don’t ignore the problem
Politics can often be the elephant in the room. Leaders shouldn’t ignore political tension in their office and hope it goes away, especially if it’s beginning to have a negative impact on work. Address it.
Recognizing differences and acknowledging conflict can ease tensions. It doesn’t change opinions or make differences go away, but it lets your team know they can work together despite disagreements.
When Richard Dukas, CEO of Dukas Linden Public Relations in New York, noticed an uptick in political discussions at the office, he brought it up in a staff meeting. The purpose wasn’t to shut down the talk, but rather to keep it civil, he told CBS News.
Depending on your company and culture, you may want to address a topic in a town hall setting or let employees talk with managers one-on-one so they can express their feelings in a safe environment without escalating tensions.
Focus on common goals
There have been many polarizing events in the news recently, including scenes from Charlottesville and political protests in the NFL. But there have also been unifying instances, such as the rescue efforts after Hurricane Harvey in Houston.
I’m sure neighbors and colleagues in Houston have political differences, but during the aftermath of the storm, none of that mattered. There was a common goal—rescue and rebuild—and it brought the best out of people as they worked together and sacrificed for the greater good.
The workplace should be the same. There will always be disagreements on politics and other topics, but when your team has worthwhile goals to pursue and markers to meet, they put aside their differences to produce the best results. Reframe the focus to the bigger picture, producing great work.
Seek learning opportunities, not debates
Political discussions aren’t easy, but they can be productive. While most of us spend time with like-minded friends, we can’t choose our co-workers. For many people, time at work is the only time to engage with people with differing political views.
It’s easy to form workplace tribes of certain political leanings, but that creates silos that cause just as much tension as heated debates. Having conversations with someone who has differing political views with the intent to learn new perspectives can have a positive impact on the work environment and relieve tension.
In a Harvard Business Review article, Whitney McCarthy, a democrat who works at a Salt Lake City-based software company, shared how she approached one of her Republican co-workers during the election to better understand his views. Though she wholeheartedly disagrees with him, they remain cordial and even playfully joke with each other because they are such opposites.
Learning how to talk about politics in a productive and empathetic manner can also help with other areas of work. There are always difficult work-related discussions such as performance reviews, peer feedback, weekly check-ins, or salary negotiations. Handling politics with tact can make other difficult discussions easier.
Find common ground
During the presidential debates last year, the moderator usually tried to end the events on a positive note by asking a question on topics candidates agreed on. Maybe they should’ve started the debates that way.
If you’re going to chat politics, find common ground first and emphasize your similarities instead of your differences. If the discussion on a particular topic escalates, you can always circle back to the commonality and end on a positive note.
Consider a social media policy
Social media is a hard beast to tame, and it’s become the main source for political news for many, particularly Millennials. Consuming feeds during work hours not only hinders productivity but can spark emotional discussions around the latest news.
Employees and leadership should aim to minimize social media consumption during work hours. It doesn’t have to be a hard policy, but a reminder can help keep people focused.
Employees expressing political opinions on social media can also be an issue, especially if the employee is a public figure. ESPN host Jemele Hill recently made news for her political controversial tweet.
In ESPN’s response to the controversy, it reminded its employees—especially their media personalities—that their comments reflect on the organization and that public comments “should not be inflammatory or personal.” That’s a principle that should guide all organizations.
Politics can’t be ignored, but you can’t let it overrun your workplace either. Today’s managers and leaders are more engaged with their employees than ever, so they have the responsibility to allow them to be human and express their feelings, but also to make sure they maintain a culture of respect and understanding despite differences.