Election 2016 in the Workplace: HR Reports Some Political Volatility at Work, SHRM Survey Shows

Majority of employers discourage politics in workplace, but only about one-third have policies addressing political activities

Jun 19, 2016
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WASHINGTON — This election year is bringing greater political volatility to the workplace, with slightly more than one-quarter of respondents to a new Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey reporting tension, hostility or arguments among co-workers because of political affiliation.

While a majority of HR professionals (72 percent) said their organizations discourage political activities in the workplace, only 24 percent of organizations have a written policy and 8 percent have an unwritten policy about political activities in the workplace.

More than two-thirds of respondents (70 percent) reported no difference in the political volatility in their workplaces, and 5 percent reported less volatility during this presidential election compared with previous election years. However, this indication of decreased volatility might be a result of employees not discussing politics for fear of creating tension in the workplace, as is evident in verbatim responses: “There is so much potential volatility that employees are not discussing the election at all,” one respondent said. “People seem less willing to talk about who they support for fear of backlash, as the candidates are fairly polarizing figures,” responded another.

Among the 26 percent of survey respondents noting greater political volatility were HR professionals who indicated changes such as: “Employees are more vocal about their opinions.” 

“Employees feel that the presidential candidates are more polarizing than in previous years” and “Employees appear to be more concerned in regard to their choices of candidates than in previous years.” 

Evren Esen, SHRM’s survey program director, said: “Even a minor increase in political volatility can create major headaches in the workplace if not managed well. With five months until Election Day, HR professionals must be tuned in for changes in the culture of their organizations and recognize that tension may increase in the coming months, making it necessary to stress collaboration despite different political perspectives.”

The Policies on Politics in the Workplace survey was released at SHRM’s 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition being held this week in Washington, D.C.

Infographic: 2016 Policies on Politics in the Workplace

Employers’ policies on political activities most commonly prohibit:

  • Employees from campaigning for a candidate or political party during work hours (included by 65 percent of those having policies).
  • Employees from using their position to coerce a colleague to make political contributions or support a candidate or cause (62 percent).
  • The use of an employer’s assets to support a candidate or party (62 percent).

A verbal warning (cited by 63 percent of respondents) and a written warning (46 percent) were the most common disciplinary actions for employees who violate a policy. Twenty-nine percent said termination also was a potential result.

In the past 12 months, only 1 percent of survey respondents reported disciplining employees for violating the organization’s policy.

“Generally speaking, employers cannot have policies that prohibit all political discussions, as this is considered protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Board,” said Edward Yost, HR business partner/employee relations at SHRM. “But it is important for employers to monitor such discussions to ensure that they do not lead to bullying or threatening behaviors between employees or become a significant drag on productivity.”   

As for employees, Yost said, “The workplace is not the best place for a lively debate of principles and personal beliefs. A good rule of thumb is to avoid those topics that generate the most arguments when you are with family and friends. Political discussions could damage the cooperative working relationship between employees who land squarely on opposite sides of an incendiary issue.” 

SHRM’s survey also asked about voting, finding:

  • 86 percent of HR professionals indicated their organizations allow employees to take either paid (53 percent) or unpaid (33 percent) time off to vote. Of these, 54 percent are required to do so by state law.
  • More than three-quarters (77 percent) said their organizations do not take any actions to encourage employees to vote.

The survey polled 457 randomly selected U.S. HR professionals in May 2016. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.

For details, visit https://www.shrm.org/research/surveyfindings/pages/policies-politics-workplace.aspx.

Media: For more information or to schedule an interview, contact Kate Kennedy at Kate.Kennedy@shrm.org and 703-535-6260 or Sundra Hominik at Sundra.Hominik@shrm.org and 703-535-6272.

About the Society for Human Resource Management 
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) is the world’s largest HR professional society, representing 285,000 members in more than 165 countries. For nearly seven decades, the Society has been the leading provider of resources serving the needs of HR professionals and advancing the practice of human resource management. SHRM has more than 575 affiliated chapters within the United States and subsidiary offices in China, India and United Arab Emirates. Visit us at shrm.org and follow us on Twitter and Instagram @SHRMPress.

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