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How to Handle Political Discourse in the Workplace

Back Article Aug 10, 2021 By Josh Smith

This story is part of our August 2021 issue. To subscribe, click here.

The current era is marked by hyper-politicization and seemingly endless cultural wars, and it is likely that a business will have employees who fall on opposite sides of those issues. While the outcome of any given current event may elate some, it will undoubtedly alienate others. Keeping those issues out of the workplace may prevent strife within the workforce. This can be tricky territory, because something as simple as being outspoken politically or sharing a commentary piece may trigger discomfort for colleagues. 

Businesses are navigating a difficult time, rife with stressors that include political, social, economic and personal issues that can impact employee performance. Business leaders should ensure their companies have proactive policies, plans and strategies to mitigate issues and preserve morale, professionalism and output.

Here are ways employers can mitigate or diffuse potential conflicts in the workplace.  

Develop Clear Policies

The first step in ensuring that politics and contentious cultural matters stay out of the workplace is to create policies that delineate what is acceptable with what is not. Expectations should address topics, content and workspaces, both physical and virtual. Something as mundane as a photo, piece of art or trinket on a video call can cause strife in the workplace if it connotes something political or otherwise controversial. 

Employer policies should include whether discussing politics, wearing political clothing or displaying political paraphernalia are permitted. If they are not, the policies should include a carve out for any topics covered by the National Labor Relations Act, such as a discussion among employees of company wages related to a politician’s support for a $15 minimum wage.

Employers should eradicate ambiguity from company policies and communicate expectations with clarity.

Lead by Example

Business leaders should lead by example. Modeling professional behavior and setting an apolitical tone will signal how others should handle political issues.  

Employees routinely look to their leaders for insight into what may be permissible, particularly when employee handbooks are vague, overlooked or outdated. When they see their supervisors and company executives avoiding commenting on political matters or expressing political views, they will likely note that they should follow suit.

If they see company leaders commenting, they will feel it is acceptable to do the same, which can lead to an unproductive — or even toxic — workplace.

In extenuating circumstances, it may be impossible to avoid politics completely. In those cases, leaders should ensure that they remain neutral in their words and actions. Doing so will help stave off discomfort in the workplace and alienation of customers and clients. 

Consider Clients and Customers

Business leaders should also consider that their clients and customers may have diverse political and cultural convictions. Companies can bolster those relationships by steering clear of contentious political matters. Every member of a company’s workforce, from the CEO down to the newest entry-level employee, can impact how stakeholders view the business. Maintaining focus on matters that are directly related to the company will keep controversial political issues at bay.

Alienating stakeholders is bad for business. Company representatives should avoid alienating clients and customers by sharing political commentary with which they may not align.

Refocus on Mission and Values

As political and cultural situations evolve, businesses may find it an excellent time to revisit their mission statements and values. These ideals can project, both internally and externally, a steadfast commitment to doing good for the community at large, clients and employees. Those values should stand as a daily reminder of why employees do what they do.

Encouraging focus on a company’s work and mission is a strong strategy that may provide a significant buffer against tension in the workplace caused by political division. It would also be appropriate to continually remind all employees, including executives, to limit political talk. Members of a company’s workforce will likely have diverse viewpoints, and respecting individual thought is essential.

Encourage Employees to Disconnect

With politics playing an outsized role in the current era, it is easy to get swept up in the fervor of current events. Between navigating dynamic business, economic and personal issues related to the global pandemic and the constant barrage of political turmoil, employees can be well served by disconnecting periodically from news coverage and social media to help maintain focus and reduce anxiety.  

Employers should consider offering access to apps and programs that assist employees in disconnecting. It can be healthy for them and beneficial to the company.

By adopting these best practices to mitigate or eliminate political discussion in the workplace, employers may be able to prevent discord. Doing such will lead to a better work environment with strong morale and enviable productivity. 

Josh Smith is Sacramento district manager with Insperity, a human resources and business performance solutions provider. For more information about Insperity, visit www.insperity.com.

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