Political Talk at Work

Politically, division is at a high mark. But how should an HR professional handle political debates at work?

Keeping a delicate balance between free speech, hostile work environments, and productivity is a real challenge for any organization.

Most agree that you can’t keep politics completely out of the workplace – and banning political talk can foster a business a lawsuit.

In 2012, CareerBuilder conducted a poll about the upcoming mid-term elections. Employees – 42 percent – avoided political talk at work and 44 percent talked politics but walked away when the conversation became heated. Only 14 percent confessed to lively debates in the workplace.

Fostering a culture of civility, from the top up, respecting the views of others, encourage in-person discussion and training managers to avoid conscious or unconscious retaliation of subordinates who disagree with them politically.

HR managers may adopt rules against wearing political gear or handing out campaign literature. If so, employees must know about it in advance.

But organizations cannot legislate human nature. For instance, if a boss thinks politically different than a subordinate, unconscious prejudice can creep into the workplace. Train managers to spot it early and give them clear guidelines.

And if clients read employee politics online or overhear conversations in the workplace, they make take their business elsewhere.

Conversations, not confrontations.

There’s really no way to police speech, which is legally protected, but HR pros can encourage employees to keep it friendly. If something escalates, train workers to walk away.

Before drafting rules about political discussions, consult an employment lawyer to make sure you’re covered.

Prohibition can get a company sued. For instance, if it’s okay to talk about sports or the finale of a controversial series, then to some employees, it would be discriminatory to ban political talk. No one wants an EEOC complaint.

Politics can touch on legally protected subjects, such as health care and equal pay and are protected by the National Labor Relations Board.

On the other hand, business owners must protect workers from a hostile environment. It can be grounds for a harassment lawsuit.

So, what’s a company to do?

Instead of creating rules about speech, owners can focus on productivity and how an uncivil work culture can get in the way.

If employees are talking about a topic, any topic, staff needs a reminder that work comes first. If productivity dips, employees need to be put on notice that talk, any talk, cannot interfere with work.

Bad blood between co-workers can gridlock a company fast.

Encourage toned-down conversation. Tell staff that when a topic gets heated, walk away. You’re not banning discussion, just keeping it civil.

Disagreements can help employees let off steam as long as it’s friendly.

Special care needs to be taken to avoid politics with clients, even if an employee thinks the client shares their views. Such talk can be seen as unprofessional and may lose the organization business.

Ask don’t tell. Bring employee focus groups together and ask what they think about environment between colleagues. It they think it’s great, ask what bringing divisive issues into the workplace would do to that culture.

The weekend before an election, have a corporate outing. Bonding can reduce disagreements and confrontation.


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Tamera Shaw is a freelance writer for Insured Solutions based in Louisville, Kentucky. She writes fiction and enjoys amateur photography. She happily shares her life with husband Ron, daughter Cate and sage cat, Sophie, who grudgingly shares her home with the newest member of our family – Nieko, our new kitten.
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