From the CEO: When Red and Blue Clash in the Workplace

HR must foster civil, open political discussions in which employees believe that they’re heard and respected, no matter their views.

By Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP February 20, 2020
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Johnny C. Taylor

With a presidential election year well underway, people everywhere are talking politics. They’re aligning along party lines and primed to defend their “team.” Not surprisingly, a lot of these political discussions are happening at work.

In 2020, political discourse has been, and will continue to be, divisive and volatile. This translates into incivility at work, which is poisonous to business and workplace culture.

New Society for Human Resource Management research shows that 42 percent of U.S. employees have personally experienced political disagreements in the workplace. As we inch closer to November, that number is certain to increase.

Every one of us could do a better job navigating conversations about sensitive issues facing our country and ourselves. But the answer isn’t to avoid political discussions. We must bring a measure of thoughtfulness and maturity to them. 

Many people have come to see their positions as starkly “red” or “blue.” But what’s really going on is differences in ideology about subjects that matter deeply to us. They strike at our core beliefs and values. So yes, there is great passion.

Far too often, HR’s response to political discussion at work is to sweep it under the rug as if it’s not happening. But that’s the worst thing we as trusted business leaders can do. Instead, we must step forward and acknowledge conflict—and show employees how to manage it better. 

Yes, this approach goes against all the advice we as HR professionals historically have received about discouraging talk of religion, sex, race, pay and politics at work. But this isn’t the way business operates anymore. Today, employees want and expect transparency. 

This election year presents the perfect opportunity for managers and business leaders to demonstrate civility, facilitate healthy debate and ensure that difficult conversations are respectful ones. This issue’s cover story presents some great examples of HR professionals accomplishing such feats of diplomacy.

Creating workplaces where people are free to disagree won’t happen naturally. And we can’t assume that People Managers and others promoted to leadership positions are innately skilled at facilitating these difficult conversations. So consider providing them with coaching, training and development as you would for any technical skill you want to build in your leaders and managers. 

I believe strongly that political differences should be included as part of diversity and inclusion instruction alongside racial, sexual and gender differences. After all, how an organization chooses to handle political discussion in the workplace—like any inclusion issue—plays a crucial role in employee engagement and retention.

If we’re really committed to improving workplace culture and enriching the employee experience, we must foster civil, open discussions in which everyone feels that they’re heard and respected, no matter their views. 

This is the true meaning—and power—of inclusive workplaces.

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management

Photograph by Delane Rouse for HR Magazine. 

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