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Political Discord Is Disrupting the Workplace

SHRM research finds almost half of U.S. workers have argued about politics while at work

A group of business people talking in an office.

Republican, Democrat and independent employees have something in common in these partisan times: Nearly half have had a disagreement in the workplace over politics, according to new research released today by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

The Politics at Work survey, fielded Oct. 7-14, suggests that many workers are involved in political discussions in the workplace and that those discussions are leading to conflicts:

  • 56 percent of U.S. employees say politics and the discussion of political issues have become more common in the last four years.
  • 42 percent have personally experienced political disagreements in the workplace.
  • 34 percent say their workplace is not inclusive of differing political perspectives.
  • 12 percent have personally experienced political-affiliation bias.

"One year out from the 2020 election, and we should expect to see political disagreements increase even further in the coming months," said SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP. "Companies can't, and shouldn't try to, quash these conversations because, contrary to popular belief, they're already happening. But what they can do is create inclusive cultures of civility where difference isn't a disruption."

Companies have been responding to the increasing division and disruption since the presidential campaigns of 2016. Three years ago, 52 percent of employers reported more politically volatile conversations at work than during previous political campaigns.

Companies such as Google have tried to end the divisiveness, with varying results.

To tamp down the problem, Google has tried to stop "disruptive" workplace discussions—whether about politics or any other differences. The company exhorted employees not to "troll, name-call or engage in ad hominem attacks about anyone" or make insulting or demeaning statements against individuals and groups of people, including business partners and public figures. The goal? To avoid discussions that are "disruptive to the workplace or otherwise violate Google's workplace policies." Managers and people who moderate or oversee the company's internal online chats are expected to intervene if the policy is violated. 

Workplace law attorneys advise promoting political discussion, as long as it is civil. While freedom of speech is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, employers can place guidelines on how employees express themselves in the workplace.  Workers are free to talk about working conditions and labor relations matters, but most employers can limit discussions about politics. State laws in California forbid discriminating against employees based on their political affiliation.

In research released earlier this year, SHRM found that toxic workplace cultures are costing employers billions in employee turnover. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans have quit a job in the past five years due to toxic workplace culture.

Employers can create civil and tolerant cultures in which employees can learn to work with the people they disagree with, Taylor said, speaking at SHRM's recent Inclusion 2019 event.

"Companies need to be proactive, not reactive. We're talking about hot-button issues that fire people up, so it's important to put up 'guard rails' when facilitating constructive, inclusive environments where employees can disagree without being disagreeable," Taylor said.