Post-Election Emotions Run High in the Workplace

HR managers seek advice on handling reactions

By Dana Wilkie Nov 17, 2016
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​When Lisa North got to work on Nov. 9, just a few hours after Donald Trump was named the U.S. president-elect, she wasn't prepared for what she encountered: Some workers were weeping. Others were expressing horror and dread about the future. Others came to work late that day.

"It was like somebody died," said North, vice president for capacity building and planning for the New York City-based The Hunger Project. "There was really a lot of grief, and you don't just ignore that. We're not a political organization, and we don't have political conversations in the office, so I wasn't sure how to navigate this … how to acknowledge the feelings that [Hillary Clinton supporters] were having without potentially marginalizing others who had voted [for Trump]."

North, who is also in charge of HR for the nonprofit The Hunger Project, phoned the HR Knowledge Center Advisors at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) for advice. But SHRM is not the only organization getting calls from companies unsure how to handle employees who are upset about the election results or the frosty relations between co-workers who supported different presidential candidates. 

Philippe Weiss is managing director of Seyfarth Shaw at Work, the law firm's Chicago-based workplace consulting arm. He said his office has fielded dozens of calls from companies asking what to do about strong post-election emotions among workers who supported Clinton or Trump.

At one company outside of Chicago, employees in the shipping department—who largely supported Trump—were gleeful after the election, he said. Workers in the marketing department—who largely supported Clinton—apparently perceived the glee as gloating, and employees in the two departments stopped talking with one another.

"The fractures you've seen across this country are represented within companies," Weiss said. "We have HR pros telling us that employees want to come to HR and talk about this because work is the one place where employees have heard the clear message that there should always be respect and tolerance. That's an interesting psychological component—that people are looking to their workplace as a conduct anchor."

Tips for Handling Post-Election Emotions

Elaine Bryant, an advisor with SHRM's HR Knowledge Center, fielded some of the calls from companies needing advice on handling post-election emotions at work.

"We were kind of surprised by the reaction," said Bryant, who told North and others to treat workers who are upset about the election the same as one might treat someone who's grieving.

Said North: "We had every supervisor talk to staffers and say, 'If you can't concentrate today, take some time off. If you need to have conversations with people, do that.' We accepted it would be a write-off of the day."

Donald Trump
U.S. Presidential Election Coverage

For more information about Donald Trump's workplace policies and how they effect HR professionals, check out the SHRM resources provided below:

· SHRM's post-election coverage
· Trump's work policies · First 100 days

HR managers can recommend that workers talk to a therapist or counselor—perhaps taking advantage of services offered through a company's employee assistance program. They can also encourage people to take time off, said Claire Lew, CEO of the Chicago-based Know Your Company, which has developed a software tool for employee feedback.

Weiss said his team is suggesting that companies create sample scripts that managers can use to calm political discussions before they grow disrespectful or heated. This approach may pay dividends later, as political discussions among co-workers are likely to continue through the Inauguration on Jan. 20 and beyond.

"It's not about avoiding discourse or spirited discussions, but when a conversation goes from immigration to negative comments about national origin, that crosses the line," he said. "Managers can be trained to note that moment when a conversation is going into frustration and people are getting put off. Inject a little humor. Keep it light. Say, 'Hey, you guys have a lot of passion, so let's apply that passion to the customer meeting at 2 p.m. today.' "

Weiss has also noticed that the post-election conciliatory statements from Clinton and President Barack Obama helped calm upset supporters. "We've heard from HR people that those workers listening to the radio or who have a screen open and see some of these [statements] have been calmed by messages from leaders of both parties. That may be part of the solution."

And HR, he said, can reassure people who are concerned about the election results that change takes time.

"Rarely do we see wholesale changes after an election," he said. "Make workers aware of the [political and governmental] processes, and remind them not to react too quickly."

In a Wall Street Journal article on healing the rifts caused by the election, William Doherty, director of marriage and family therapy at the University of Minnesota, offered these tips that can be shared with employees:

  •  Don't gloat if your candidate won, and don't predict the end of the country if your candidate lost.

  •  Don't continue an argument that will get you nowhere.

  •  If you need to vent, do so with people who share your views. 

  •  Put the presidential campaign in a box, leave it on the shelf and move on.


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