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When Politics Comes to Work: 4 Ways HR Executives Can Promote Civility Amid Division

As political discord heats up, how can HR executives prevent uncivil behavior from spilling over into the workplace? Veteran HR leaders share the steps they’re taking to navigate these turbulent times.


Divisive. Polarized. Toxic.

It’s no surprise these are among the top words Americans use to describe the current state of politics in the U.S., according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. And in the workplace, HR executives are on the front lines of setting the tone—and the policies—to make sure political polarization doesn’t spark rude behavior, conflict, or even violence among employees. That’s never been easy for HR, and it is particularly challenging in 2024.

According to a 2024 SHRM Research survey, more than half of U.S. workers (57%) say they’ve experienced or witnessed incivility at work within the past week. And many expect the tension to ratchet even higher as the election nears: More than a third of workers (34%) say they believe the November election will trigger additional incivility in the workplace. That’s on top of previous SHRM research finding that 20% of employees said they had been mistreated at work by their co-workers or peers due to their political views. 

“Employees feel much more comfortable voicing their opinions on everything, including politics, at work,” says Kelly Dobbs Bunting, an employment lawyer with Greenberg Traurig in Philadelphia. Bunting says she has never seen anything like the volatility of political debates in workplaces in recent years.

“I think norms regarding respect for different opinions have also weakened, and employees will [now] say something out loud when before they may have just walked away,” she adds. “It seems it’s growing harder for managers to prevent these conflicts.”

Political discussions at work were once frowned upon, but today, that line is blurred. A survey by career website Zety found a whopping 83% of people say they’ve discussed politics at work. And 61% of people in a recent Pew poll say it’s stressful and frustrating to have political discussions with people they disagree with. That's an increase from 2019, when only 50% found it stressful. 

“People have such deeply personal connections to political issues these days. Their identities are so intertwined with these topics,” says Amber Favuzzi, senior vice president of HR at Ohio-based Express Wash Concepts.

Favuzzi says that because political views are more engrained in people, it’s more difficult to prevent the topic from coming up organically in discussions among co-workers. And in today’s divisive culture, what one employee may consider a casual remark could cause resentment, anger, or worse.

Bring Your ‘Professional Self’ to Work

What’s at stake if political discussions cause a disruptive or toxic culture? One big risk is attrition. Workers who rate their workplace as uncivil are three times more likely to say they are dissatisfied with their jobs and twice as likely to say they will leave their jobs over the next 12 months, according to SHRM’s civility research. 

“Retention is always at risk,” says Sonja Southerland, SHRM-SCP, CHRO at Innovate Human Capital Solutions. "You want to create environments where people feel included, heard and valued." But Southerland advocates for balance when it comes to expression at work, saying it "cannot be in a way that's disrespectful, harmful, illegal, or unethical toward others."

Indeed, most companies don’t actually want their employees to bring their whole selves into the workplace. They really want them to bring their professional selves to work.

“I really worry about the ‘Bring your whole self to work’ mantra because it demands more than what most managers have the capacity for. There is an expectation that managers are not merely coaches, but now counselors as well,” says
Carolyn Wang, senior vice president of global corporate communications at Ultragenyx, a California-based biopharma company. “The current social environment is amplifying existing politics within companies because now you’re on one side or another, and more employees are trying to recruit people to their side.”

Political divisiveness is also putting a strain on organizations’ efforts at inclusivity.

“Although we are implementing practices that give guidance to be more inclusive, when you’re in this political environment, it challenges that impact,” says Southerland. “The risk is that we lose some of that inclusivity because we don’t want to go too far into the weeds with issues that could be divisive. … Then that challenges the whole concept of that harmony and integration of how we work.”

Perhaps the most elusive threat could be employee silence about all forms of uncivil behavior at work. The SHRM civility survey found that nearly half of uncivil acts (49%) go unreported at work. That means relying on official complaints as an indication of workplace incivility could hide some problematic trends.

Civility or lack thereof is not synonymous with misalignment or disagreement. It’s our responsibility in HR to create the conditions by which you can have messy but healthy debates and discussions. And you can do that in a civil way, even if you’re not aligned and on the same page.” 

Julie Lodge-Jarrett, Chief People and Purpose Officer

Dick’s Sporting Goods


4 Steps to Create a Civil Workplace in an Election Year

While HR executives can’t change the cultural tides, they can take the following steps to promote a civil workplace against the current political backdrop:

1. Proactively Prepare for Difficult Conversations

HR leaders can’t simply sit back and hope this issue doesn’t flare up in their workplace. It’s important to acknowledge that difficult political and social discussions will be occurring in your workplace this year and to prepare leaders for the unique challenges they could face.

“The initial challenge will hinge upon whether the HR team and leadership are capable and equipped to have crucial and difficult conversations on these matters as they arise, rather than point to a specific policy as the answer,” says Paula Walcott, SHRM-SCP, CHRO at Sagicor Life. “The dynamic nature of politically skewed discussions almost invites opposing views. Therefore, leaders must be willing to use these teachable moments as they arise to have these difficult conversations.”

Southerland recommends starting at the executive level. In 2020, her company scheduled an executive meeting amid the racial tensions triggered by the murder of George Floyd. Executive team members were all asked to read a specific book on how to discuss racial issues, and then they spent time discussing it as a team.

“It was uncomfortable, but it was very helpful because we left there with some understanding about each other’s perspectives,” says Southerland.

“Although we may not have agreed totally, we could at least align on what our strategy was going to be. We didn’t wait until we had complaints from a manager that this broke out in the team,” she says. “It helped us to develop talking points to give insights to the managers about here’s where the organization is, this is our position on it, and this is how you should handle these conversations moving forward.”

HR leaders need to be especially focused on listening—not just talking—during these tense times.

“Listening more and talking less is a powerful tool,” says Southerland. “If you can just be quiet long enough to listen,
a lot of times you’ll get more information than if you’re
presenting a case. … Listening helps us understand what people are really afraid of, and then we can approach it more strategically.”

2. Facilitate Hard Discussions

It’s unrealistic to think that hot-button issues aren’t being discussed among employees. That’s why many HR leaders try to head off conflicts by giving workers opportunities to openly discuss these topics. Example: Use employee resource groups to facilitate constructive conversations among people who already have a shared experience, such as veterans or single parents.

”They’re in a space where they feel safe with colleagues who may or may not agree, but they already have common ground somewhere else,” says Southerland. “It’s very important when there’s conflict to find common ground. If you have places in your organization where that already exists—particularly cross-functionally—I think that’s a good place to introduce those conversations."

Workers welcome this approach. In a recent survey of 2,000 U.S professionals by HR software firm HiBoB, almost half (48%) agree that respectful sociopolitical discourse should be encouraged as part of a company’s culture of inclusion and diversity. Over 80% think these issues need to be addressed in a safe space.

“Civility or lack thereof is not synonymous with misalignment or disagreement,” said Julie Lodge-Jarrett, chief people and purpose officer at Dick’s Sporting Goods, during a recent People + Strategy podcast. “It’s our responsibility in HR to create the conditions by which you can have messy but healthy debates and discussions. And you can do that in a civil way, even if you’re not aligned and on the same page.”

To encourage those conversations, Dick’s started a program in 2020 called Dialogue Circles. It brought employees together in small groups—either in person or online—for facilitator-led conversations on topics that historically would’ve been seen as taboo in the workplace, such as gun control and racial conflict.

Dick’s will not, however, be holding Dialogue Circles specifically about the 2024 presidential election. Employees will be able to discuss general issues in these gatherings, but not candidates. And the company is actively reminding workers this year to avoid the hot-button red-versus-blue debate.

“We are doubling down on reinforcing our zero-tolerance stance,” Lodge-Jarrett said. “Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, agnostic of whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or support one candidate or the other. … When the nation feels so divided, we’re at least creating a culture where we feel more united and feel like we belong, at least inside our four walls.”

3. Drive Home Your Company Values

Many organizations have invested years in creating a corporate culture underpinned by a set of guiding values. Now’s the time to lean into those values and clarify your company policies regarding respectful and disruptive behavior.

“Companies with strong cultures will confidently navigate the increasingly divided political atmosphere because they already have a foundation of how employees are to treat each other,” says Walcott. “In situations that are escalated to HR, the ensuing conversations and the decisions are easy to make because accountability was front-loaded and everyone knows the expectations.”

Veronica Knuth, chief people officer at Ohio-based Quantum Health, takes a long view when it comes to reinforcing values. “Make sure that all employees, from the minute they become a candidate, understand what the core values are and then be really vocal about reinforcing them,” she says. “When we have divergent points of view, we can at least come together and say we may not agree on the same political affiliation, but can we have a mutual purpose and a mutual respect around our company’s mission [and] around the clients and members that we serve?”

The door has been opened too wide for us to now come in and say, ‘Sorry, you can’t talk about politics in the workplace.’ We don’t have to agree; we just need to be willing to respect.”

Veronica Knuth, Chief People Officer

Quantum Health


4. Clarify Policies and Know the Law

It can be tempting to tell workers to refrain from all political discourse at work. But that’s not a realistic (or wise) policy.

Executives need to familiarize themselves with the legal protections for certain types of speech. Many employees wrongly believe the First Amendment gives them free rein to express their political views at work. This free-speech
protection only applies (in a limited way) in the public sector. But this doesn’t mean businesses can curb all employee speech. For example, federal law does give private-sector
workers the right to organize and engage in concerted activities regarding their working conditions. 

And even when workers are off-duty, their political speech and social media activity can upset co-workers and may violate employer policies against harassment or discrimination. Company leaders should instruct people managers to acquaint themselves with company policies that spell out when employee comments or interactions cross the line.

Limiting misconduct is typically more effective than banning specific political discussions or comments.

Bunting recalls a worker who repeatedly told colleagues that his political party was superior to theirs. Co-workers complained that he was continually interrupting their work. After the worker ignored HR’s warnings about his behavior, he was disciplined for violating the company’s “disruption of the workplace” policy.

“I go back to that policy, which allows for discipline if an employee is interrupting the work of others for any reason—not just to discuss politics,” says Bunting. “As we have the election coming up, I would create that policy and conduct training.” 

Front-line managers and HR staff need clear direction that politically charged discussions may become problematic, and what to do if this occurs.

Although the 2024 election is putting workplace political chatter in the spotlight, it’s not a one- and-done issue that will end on Nov. 5. If anything, political headbutting at work may temporarily worsen as emotions run high after the election and through the inauguration season. Take every opportunity to remind workers about your company values and your requirements for civil and respectful behavior.

“Everybody comes to work with an invisible suitcase that is packed with things such as where we grew up, what kind of family and neighborhood we’re from, our political views, or our educational experience. Those are all things that make a healthy workplace,” says Knuth. “We have to be open to listen, to learn, and to understand where somebody might be coming from. The door has been opened too wide for us to now come in and say, ‘Sorry, you can’t talk about politics in the workplace.’ We don’t have to agree; we just need to be willing to respect.”     

Suzanne Lykins is a freelance author and former communications leader at PwC. 




graphic of three people


Uncivil behavior at work is common—and it’s hurting job satisfaction and retention. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. workers (65%) say they have experienced or witnessed incivility in their workplace within the past month. Workers who rate their workplace as uncivil are three times more likely to be dissatisfied with their jobs and twice as likely to leave their jobs in the next year.

34% graphic

The election will stir the pot, especially at larger companies and public employers. More than a third (34%) of employees believe the 2024 election will create more incivility in their workplace, while 64% believe incivility will stay the same. People who work for larger organizations and in the public sector are more likely to believe the election will generate added incivility.

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Two-thirds of HR departments say they’re prepared or very prepared for election fallout. HR leaders are fairly confident that their departments are ready to manage negative employee interactions leading up to and after Election Day. Roughly two-thirds say their HR department is very prepared (24%) or prepared (43%), while 27% say it’s somewhat prepared and 6% say it’s not prepared at all.

pie chart

Few organizations actively encourage respectful  discussions about politics. Only 1 in 5 HR professionals (21%) said their organization strongly or somewhat encourages respectful and civil discussions of federal, state, or local politics. In comparison, nearly two-thirds (62%) of organizations neither encourage nor discourage such discussions. Another 17% explicitly discourage political discussions.