Minimizing workplace conflict in a divisive political climate
Political discussions in the workplace can be divisive and distracting — perhaps now more than ever, considering today’s particularly volatile political climate.
Besides being a complex situation for HR to navigate, this issue can negatively affect employee productivity and morale if left unaddressed. One recent study by Wayne Hochwarter, a professor of organizational behavior at Florida State University, revealed that out of 550 full-time employees surveyed, at least 20 percent felt they had “lost friendships, avoided coworkers and gotten distracted in the workplace because of divisive politics.” And over a quarter of all the respondents said politics had raised their stress levels, making it more difficult to accomplish work.
So, what steps can companies take to maintain a civil and low-stress work environment? A good general approach is to simply encourage employees to think of work as a haven from the drama of politics and ask that they refrain from such discussions during work time. Supervisors and leadership should set the example for a high standard of respectful conduct. You may also want to hold an employee training session on how to manage workplace conflicts.
Here are a few other important things to consider.
Review your employee handbook
The workplace isn’t an appropriate environment for distracting or uncivil debates on any topic.
Private-sector employers are free to regulate disruptive political discussions like they would any other form of disruptive workplace discussions as needed to maintain a professional and productive environment. Your employee handbook’s code of conduct section should clearly outline your expectation that all workplace discussions will be held in a respectful and nondisruptive manner. You may also need to include political apparel guidelines in your dress code.
Electronic communication should be covered in your policies as well. Company email and internal instant-messaging platforms should be used for business-related matters only.
If your company takes political stances, some employees may find them intolerable and want to leave. “Encourage people to take their time to decide whether they want to stay, and let them know that you will give them time to make the transition to a new job if that is what they need to do,” advises employment attorney Heather Bussing.
Know what you can’t do
Be mindful that federal law protects employees’ right to discuss labor issues such as wages and working conditions. If a particular political discussion is relevant to those topics, tread carefully to avoid potential legal trouble. And it should go without saying, but I’ll add that employers may not dismiss or threaten to dismiss any employee for how they vote or plan to vote. Employers may communicate their political views to employees, but federal law prohibits employers from coercing employees to vote a particular way or donate to candidates or PACs.
No matter which ways your employees lean on the political spectrum, there will always be the potential for workplace discourse to get out of hand. The best course of action is to review your political speech and activity policies with your legal counsel to make sure they are up-to-date and don’t conflict with any state or federal laws. Enforce those policies in a consistent and timely manner, and ensure leadership demonstrates the same level of respectful conduct you ask of your employees.