Presidential Election Is Stressing Out Workers, Hurting Productivity

APA says more than 1 in 4 employees have been negatively affected

By Lisa Petrillo Oct 6, 2016
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​The contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump for president of the United States is stressing out workers and inciting workplace arguments that are hurting productivity, according to new findings by the American Psychological Association (APA).

The APA survey results show that more than 1 in 4 employees have been negatively affected by workplace conversations they've had about the Clinton-Trump race and that divisions exist between generations and genders in the workplace, according to the APA's Center for Organizational Excellence.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
U.S. Presidential Election Coverage

For more information about where the candidates stand on workplace issues, check out the SHRM resources provided below:

· SHRM's full election coverage
· Clinton policies · Trump policies

For younger workers—defined by the survey as those under age 34—some 28 percent reported that political discussions at work left them feeling stressed-out, with 1 in 4 Millennials saying political debates were leading to workplace hostility.

Nearly half (47 percent) of all respondents said people are more likely to discuss politics in the workplace this election season than in the past. One in 5 reported avoiding some co-workers because of their political views, and more than one-quarter (27 percent) reported at least one negative outcome as a result of political discussions at work this election season.

The survey was conducted online by Harris Poll for APA from Aug. 10-12 among 927 U.S. adults employed either full time or part time.

Age differences showed up in workplace behavior over politics as well in the survey. Workers over 45 were less likely to avoid coworkers because of their political views while those under 44 were twice as likely to keep away from coworkers who disagreed with their political views.

All respondents said they witnessed or overheard others discussing politics at work, discussed politics at work themselves, or discussed politics with a co-worker who adhered to the same political opinions.  But those older than 65 were less likely to say this than those younger than 65. 

The APA survey results, released in September, found strong gender differences: Twice as many men as women reported that political talk was upsetting them enough to make them less productive. Further, almost twice as many men reported feeling isolated from co-workers because of political discussions at work and noticing increased workplace hostility.

The APA findings bolster findings from an earlier survey of HR professionals by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) on politics in the workplace, with 26 percent of respondents reporting tension, hostility or arguments among co-workers because of political affiliation.


Tone Is Negative, Issues Are Personal


The tone and topics of this election season are more divisive than in the contentious races of 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012, said Leigh A. Bradberry, a political science professor at California State University-Northridge.

Because voters have intense feelings about race and gender that are integral to their identity, some candidate proposals have been particularly upsetting. Trump has announced that, if elected, he would ban Muslims from entering the country and would build a wall along the 2,000-mile shared border with Mexico to prevent undocumented immigrants from entering the U.S. He also has sharply criticized women based on their appearance. Meanwhile, Clinton called Trump's supporters "a basket of deplorables."

"Because this campaign has brought these issues to the surface in a very visceral way, many voters are now openly talking about these issues in ways that could certainly make for more awkward, tension-filled conversations in the workplace," Bradberry said.

A.J. Marsden, an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College in Florida, said workplace disruption can be traced to the intense negativity of the 2016 election so far: "This election year, the tone has been uniquely negative, and that has led to a sharper emotional state with voters," she noted. "We have Trump—a candidate so polarizing that major members of his party won't be voting for him—and Clinton, the first female candidate … [who is] viewed [as having] a shady history that sparks much heated debate."

Katina Sawyer, an assistant professor of psychology and graduate programs in human resource development at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, observed that people feel their very identity is being discussed daily on cable TV. Moreover, she said, people may feel that Trump's focus on Muslims, immigrants and women's appearances isolates them from co-workers who support Trump's views.

That division can create serious problems, Sawyer said: "This lack of belonging may cause employees to withdraw at work, decrease productivity or even leave their job."


What Employers Can Do

How far can company leaders and HR departments go in limiting political discourse at work? While employers cannot prohibit concerted political speech, they can draw some lines.

As Marsden notes, "The First Amendment does not protect people from the consequences of expressing their political views whenever and wherever they wish."

Experts warn, however, that employers should tread carefully when trying to fend off politics in the workplace. A survey by SHRM of Policies on Politics in the Workplace found that 24 percent of organizations have a written policy about political discussions at work.

Having clear policies and rules about political speech is important for the workplace, advises John A. Snyder of Jackson Lewis, a firm specializing in workplace law. Snyder provided a "Top 10" list of guidelines on the Association of Corporate Counsel website for employers include the following:

  • Create blanket nonsolicitation policies that prohibit everything from workplace Girl Scout cookie sales to "vote for my candidate" discussions.
  • Remind workers that company computer systems and electronics are primarily for business-related use, not political discussions.
  • Seek legal counsel before disciplining any employee for political activities.
  • Advise employees that all workplace speech, whether political or otherwise, should be respectful and tolerant of others' views.

Lewis suggests companies be more prepared for elections by having policies in place far in advance. "Companies should be aware of and sensitive to the fact that convictions about political candidates and their positions on social, economic and other issues often run very deep," Snyder said.

In addition, a 2015 SHRM article on political debates in the workplace offers more steps managers can take to keep the peace during election season.

Lisa Petrillo is a freelance writer based in San Diego. 

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