During a Heated Election, Some Workers More Vocal About Candidates

By Dana Wilkie Jun 16, 2016
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About 1 in 4 HR professionals say employees in their organizations are more riled up about this year’s presidential election than elections past—with tension, hostility and arguments flaring up because of political affiliation, according to a survey report released June 19 by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

The survey report also noted that, while discussing political views at work is considered “protected concerted activity,” employers are within their rights to quell political discussions that may offend protected classes. 

Tamping down divisive political discussions is particularly relevant in a year when presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country, has made offensive remarks about women’s looks and has questioned whether a judge of Mexican descent could rule fairly in civil fraud lawsuits involving Trump University. 

“In general, the rhetoric during the Republican primary was more hostile than before, which set the tone,” said Evren Esen, director of SHRM’s survey programs. “Trump as a political outsider means that it is not politics as usual. This, coupled with a two-term president on his way out, makes the stakes higher.” 

The Policies on Politics in the Workplace survey of 457 SHRM members was conducted in May 2016 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent. 

The survey report comes during a historic presidential election year: The first woman in U.S. history—Hillary Rodham Clinton—has clinched a major political party presidential nomination, and the outside-the-Beltway Trump is a billionaire entertainer whose policies have rattled those within his own party. 

Five percent of respondents actually reported fewer heated discussions at work surrounding this presidential election than in elections past, though the survey report authors said this might reflect workers’ fear of creating tension in the workplace. The authors noted that one respondent wrote, “There is so much potential volatility that employees are not discussing the election at all.” Another wrote, “People seem less willing to talk about who they support for fear of backlash, as the candidates are fairly polarizing figures.” 

Although nearly 3 in 4 survey respondents said they discourage political activities at work, workplace policies cannot prohibit such discussions, nor can managers tell employees that they aren’t allowed to have these kinds of discussions. The National Labor Relations Board classifies political activity at work as a “protected concerted activity.” For purposes of the survey, political activities refer to activities supporting or opposing a political party, candidate, group, association or agenda.

“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,” said Edward Yost, HR business partner at SHRM. 

Because political discussions can touch on issues related to workers who are protected from discrimination by federal law, those conversations “must therefore be treated with caution,” the survey report authors wrote. 

“Candidate platforms are sometimes directly or indirectly related to a protected class,” the authors wrote. “Thus, discussions of these topics could create a situation where employees could feel discriminated against or bullied. HR professionals and managers must therefore exercise good judgment about when to step in to quell discussion that is becoming heated, inappropriate or impeding productivity.”

A little over a quarter (26 percent) of survey respondents reported an increase in how vocal employees are being about their political opinions this election cycle. These respondents said employees appear to view this year’s presidential candidates as more polarizing than in previous elections and appear to be more concerned than in the past about their candidate choices. 

“These types of concerns could pose problems for teamwork and cohesiveness if not managed well,” the authors wrote. 

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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