Viewpoint: How to Talk Politics at Work

By Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP October 26, 2020

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When President Trump called out Goodyear Tire in a tweet, "canceling" the company for not allowing employees to wear "Make America Great Again" hats, CEO Rich Kramer was no doubt surprised. "To be clear," Kramer tweeted soon after, "Goodyear does not endorse any political organization, party or candidate. We have a longstanding company policy that asks associates to refrain from workplace expressions in support of any candidate or political party."

But he was learning the hard way what many CEOs have come to know in these politically divisive times: Such policies, however even-handed they seem, don't work in a 21st century workplace. To many CEOs, shutting down all political conversation may seem like the smart, or at least the safe, thing to do; taking the risk of sanctioning such fraught discussion may seem absurd. But success depends, at least in part, on team trust and the free exchange of ideas to innovate and grow—simply tamping down speech risks corroding the essence of your operations.

It also negates a value many corporations have been claiming for their own: the importance of bringing one's whole self to work. Companies that, on the one hand, say they value diverse identities but, on the other, ask employees to leave their politically diverse views at the door, risk being seen as disingenuous—and may garner negative attention on social media and, as Goodyear did, watch their share price take a hit.

And here's the thing: the conversations are happening anyway. According to a recent survey by our organization, more than half of working Americans say discussion of political issues has become more common over the past four years, not less. The majority reported having had at least one political disagreement at work. The notion that you will be able to prevent those conversations from happening with an HR directive is naïve.

At the same time, employees report that they feel insecure talking about these issues at work. More than one-third say their workplace is not inclusive about differing political opinions, and one in 10 say they have personally experienced differential treatment because of political views or political affiliation bias.

Given the cost of turnover—about $223 billion collectively over the past five years—companies can ill afford to allow the kind of toxic culture that makes top employees think about going elsewhere. With one-quarter of all employees we surveyed saying they dread going to work, there is clearly room for improvement around culture.

It's About Diversity, Not Politics

Creating a culture that is inclusive and welcoming is high on the agenda in every C-Suite and boardroom. We've realized over time that inclusivity means allowing people to bring all aspects of themselves openly into the workplace. Yet, not very long ago, companies frowned on discussions of racial or gender equality. Today, in the wake of MeToo and George Floyd, we couldn't imagine preventing such expression. I would argue that the expression of political belief is no different.

Diversity means all differences, not only the ones we've grown comfortable with. That's where companies need to be honest with themselves—if you truly want diversity, you must embrace those rules more broadly. We need to get out in front of issues and stop waiting for a crisis to force us to address them. George Floyd's death didn't make me think, "it's time to have these conversations about race." We should have been having them all along.

We need to stop being reactive. Given the divided nature of our country, we know that however the election results turn out, a segment of your employees will be unhappy—likely for a long time to come. As CEO, you need to make sure your people are able to work together regardless of the outcome at the ballot box—and that should start now.

We have to remind our employees that this is a part of our culture. It's not about politics—it's about diversity. People are different and have a right to different political views—that's why we have two parties. In the 21st century workplace, you simply can't say, "I want you to bring your authentic and true self to work" and then impose negative consequences when they do. That's no different than hiring a Black person and then telling them, "We don't want you to talk about being Black in the workplace." If we mandate that our culture be committed to diversity, we must accept political affiliation as simply another aspect of that diversity.

Rules of Engagement

Practically speaking, how do you navigate such a potentially fraught dialogue at such a tricky time? How do you keep discussion from devolving into disrespect?

I would argue that you do it the same way you do with issues of gender equality, race and other diversity topics. These are uncomfortable conversations, no question. Our human instinct—and the way many of us were taught—is to be conflict avoiders. But the 21st century workplace demands that you manage conflict, not avoid it—that you force people to be uncomfortable to get to a better, more authentic place. This is where CEOs need to lean heavily on the skills of HR professionals trained to have difficult conversations and to facilitate them.

At SHRM, we use four "rules of engagement" for tough conversations on race, gender or politics. That allows us to have discussions while ensuring that no employee feels bullied or punished for their political views.

  1. Discuss, don't debate. When you're driving open and honest dialogue, you should emphasize that the purpose of getting together is discussion and a free exchange of ideas—it's not about debating, winning, shouting down or disproving the other person's position. It is a discussion to put all people's perspectives on the table.
  2. Abide the rules of civility. If you can't get yourself comfortable hearing something that will make you uncomfortable, then don't participate. If it's going to devolve into incivility, disrespect, name-calling, then we're not going to have the conversation. Know that you will have disagreement, but how you disagree matters. And just to be clear, we're not talking about hate speech. This is about the respectful expression of views.
  3. Create a welcoming environment free of retaliation and judgment. I've never been comfortable with "safe space" language because it buys into the concept of victimization. Frankly, if we didn't want anyone to feel unsafe, we would never have conversations about race in the workplace, because they make some people feel very unsafe. The goal is a space free of judgment—will I be seen or treated differently? And will this impact my ability for promotion? It is critical for these discussions to take place in a welcoming environment free of retaliation and judgment.
  4. Leaders cannot push an agenda. CEOs have political views, and they shouldn't have to hide them. I should be able to say, "Listen, guys, I'm not telling any of you who you should vote for. What I am telling you is that I'm supporting Joe Biden. You vote for whomever you want." Same thing if I was supporting Donald Trump. But as CEO, I have to make it clear that a) I'm not taking a position on behalf of the company and b) you don't have to agree with me. Leaders must make it crystal clear that their employees do not have to support their candidate and will not be penalized professionally for expressing views that differ from theirs.

Back in 2007, I was a big Hillary Clinton supporter. I had a large staff, and I had to be conscious of my influence and careful to ensure I wasn't using it. I had a responsibility to clarify to my employees that they should vote their own consciences. And I got plenty of flak. Imagine: the first Black man to run for office and I'm supporting the White woman? It got ugly.

I caught hell from the right and the left. But that was my choice, and I wasn't going to hide it. I hosted a $2,300-a-plate fundraising dinner at my home in North Carolina, and you would have thought I was fundraising for the Grand Wizard of the KKK. But I didn't care because that's what I believed.

Fast forward—when I accepted an appointment by President Trump to represent the historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) community as his advisor on Black colleges, the left lost their minds, too. I didn't care—I did what I thought was right.

As CEO, you don't have to tell your employees who you're voting for, but neither should you nor anyone else have to hide it. We have to get past this idea that you must 100 percent agree with me 100 percent of the time—or there's something wrong with you. As CEOs, we must look at this as an opportunity to demonstrate our cultural values. People judge us by what we do, not what we say. If we say we believe in diversity, our employees will be watching to see if, in fact, we do what we say.

This is an opportunity to really live your culture. If we can wrestle this bear to the ground, then all the other dimensions of diversity will benefit. If you can truly create an inclusive, welcoming culture, you'll be in a position to win—no matter who is in the White House.

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is President and Chief Executive Officer of SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, which has over 300,000 members in 165 countries. 

This article is adapted from with permission from Chief Executive. ©2020. All rights reserved.



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