Tips for Managers: Handling Politics and the Pandemic in the Workplace

By Kathleen Doheny May 26, 2020
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​As employees go back to their workplaces after lockdowns are lifted, they might disagree about how well the federal and state governments, as well as employers, are handling the pandemic. If tempers flare during heated discussions, managers will need all the help they can get.

We asked seasoned managers for their best tips on how to keep both political and pandemic debates under control.

Heather Engen, head of the platform products group for Fujitsu Americas, a business technology, cloud services, computer platform and industry solutions company in Raleigh, N.C.     

Tip: Recognize diversity.Heather Engen

"We try to recognize diversity across the board, observing Black History Month, International Women's Day. We try to encourage people to register to vote. We take the broad view of encouraging people to get involved." When diversity is encouraged, political debate seems to lessen, she said.

"We are having open discussions about what is happening locally about the pandemic. Those conversations lend themselves to a political bent based on what is happening, but we don't focus on the partisanship. We talk about the progress."

Political debates are more difficult to avoid in a more social work setting, such as a team dinner, Engen said. Once conversations get a bit more emotional, "I tend to say, 'We all have different opinions.' Watch for those moments when people are feeling a bit more personal about the discussion. At that point, I guide the discussion to a new topic."

A team that's worked together longer tends to have both professional and personal relationships, she said, and that's a plus to keeping harmony. The co-workers are aware of one another's political beliefs. "They know what to touch and what not" to discuss, Engen concluded.

Ken Schlechter, founder of Kenneth Michael Consulting Services, a company that oversees financial transformations, organizational change and other projects in New York City.

Tip: Maintain the safe zone.Ken Schlechter

"I try to discourage any type of political discussion in the workplace," Schlechter said. "People get so heated. I try to make the workplace a safe zone, especially now with the pandemic."

For those who insist on broaching touchy subjects, he suggested: "If you are going off to lunch and want to have a political discussion, fine." He acknowledged that a manager can't control a conversation if, for instance, he or she is out with teammates for drinks after work.

"You don't have any jurisdiction over [employees after work hours]. I may have a strong point of view I like to share, but [instead] I have walked away from the conversation, or other times I have just kept quiet. I have done both. It really depends on the topic and my feeling around it."

As workplaces reopen, expect some divergent views from employees about whether they feel comfortable and safe returning to the office. "I think some people will say they like working at home," Schlechter said, "and others might not be comfortable commuting and being close to other people."

Addressing concerns and meeting workers' expectations will be difficult if a company insists that people come back to the office too quickly, he explained.

"Companies will need to decide what they want their business model to look like in the short, medium and long terms," Schlechter said, and managers must also realize that the company needs to adjust expectations to retain and attract talent during and after a pandemic.

Tracy Kalesse, HR and payroll manager at The Benson Hotel, a boutique hotel in Portland, Ore.

Tip: Stay neutral.Tracy Kalesse

"I've always done my best to coach managers to remain neutral and don't necessarily make your personal politics known," Kalesse explained. "It doesn't matter what your stance is. That's not our end goal.

"Some employees will say they need to vent about a political disagreement. I say, 'Fine. Do you need to leave the door open or closed?' Once they are done venting, I tell them, 'I need you to be levelheaded.' Managers should remember their job is mentoring or coaching, not giving political advice."

Ed Hasan, SHRM-CP, CEO and managing partner of Kaizen Human Capital, a company offering organization development, culture and diversity services in Washington, D.C.

Tip: Anticipate emotional responses.

The worst mistake a manager can make in this election and pandemic year, Hasan said, is sitting back and waiting to see what happens instead of tackling "the elephant in the room."Ed Hasan, SHRM-CP

"The issues surrounding the pandemic will compound what will already be an emotionally charged election," he said. "The pandemic in itself has naturally impacted the emotional state of everyone, and the election could put us in overdrive. I think people will become more passionate about the election."

Having had excess free time may add to the issue, he said. "Many have had more time to think about things [while working remotely] than they had before."

Have a policy in place for political discussions and consequences for violating the policy.

Workers need training in how to approach difficult discussions, Hasan said. The training can be as simple as suggesting workers begin the conversation by acknowledging that they are discussing something that is emotional for them. Once they recognize that, he said, they tend to become more empathetic.

Empathy can diffuse a heated discussion quickly, Hasan has found. He had an employee who said firmly that he believed the U.S. should build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. This employee didn't know that one of his colleagues had a relative in Mexico until that employee said so. After hearing each other out, the discussion ended with hugs, Hasan said.

Loren Collins, faculty support coordinator of career education and internship at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif.

Tip: Find common ground.Loren Collins

The same techniques that keep spouses or partners from arguing can help keep employees from exploding about political or pandemic issues, Collins suggested. Remind workers that "disagreeing on one or two issues does not mean you are opposed to each other on every issue. Spending as much time looking for common ground as arguing is a good way to build relationships."

If people insist on discussing politics, set ground rules: no name-calling. If someone becomes agitated, end the conversation. Discuss politics around the watercooler, not in the staff meeting.

Alissa Santiago, associate director of financial planning and analysis at Raytheon Technologies, an aerospace and defense company in Waltham, Mass.             

Tip: Remember, it's personal.

Political views—about a presidential election or the handling of a pandemic—are at their core based in personal values, religious views and past experiences, Santiago said. An employee who has an immunocompromised relative likely will have very different views from an employee who does not about how well states are reopening amid the pandemic.Alissa Santiago

As a young manager in her 30s at a previous position, Santiago had direct reports in their 50s and 60s. "I was a Hillary [Clinton] supporter in a team of [Donald] Trump supporters," she said. Focusing on how their beliefs originated helped her better understand their points of view.

Likewise, everyone has a different level of comfort with the reopening of states. Some view the stay-at-home orders and business lockdowns as overkill, while others think the reopening is too soon. Managers can find out what's on employees' minds by asking, "If you were in charge, what would you do, and what would you have done?"

"Know your people," Santiago suggested, "and you are going to know what level of comfort they have [with the return to work]."

Kathleen Doheny is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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