The employee was on vacation. At his private computer. On his personal Facebook page. Posting about protests in his city.
But his Facebook settings were public.
He blamed “Blacks”for recent protests that had turned violent, and he suggested what “should be done” to them. His direct reports complained. His supervisors suspended him without pay.
That’s one of the more challenging situations that Kelly Bunting, a shareholder with Greenberg Traurig LLP in Philadelphia, says she has seen companies try to navigate when political discourse in the workplace—whether about an upcoming election, a Supreme Court ruling or a protest—has gotten out of hand.
In a recent survey of 1,000 employees about election politics in the workplace by Zety, a provider of online career services, 83 percent of respondents said they have political discussions at work. Such interactions are not always healthy. Nineteen percent said they have difficulty working with colleagues who hold differing political views, and nearly 13 percent said they felt bullied by co-workers due to their political beliefs.
Bunting says she has never seen anything like the number or volatility of political debates in workplaces in recent years.
“Employees feel much more comfortable voicing their opinions on everything, including politics, even at work,” Bunting says. “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. It seems it's growing harder for managers to prevent these conflicts.”
The public’s general feeling about the upcoming presidential election doesn’t bode well for workplace politics in the near future. A September 2023 survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that nearly two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) say they always or often feel exhausted when thinking about politics, while 55 percent say they feel angry. That anger is becoming an increasing source of worry: An October 2023 report by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 23 percent of Americans now agree that political violence may be necessary “to save our country,” up from 15 percent in 2021.
‘There are so many issues wound up in our politics, and none of them is just casual.’
“It doesn't have to be clearly over the line for a lot of people to say, ‘I’m fed up with this person, and I won’t deal with them anymore,’ ” says Stephen Paskoff, a former litigator with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and author of multiple books on political discussions at work.
“I started as a congressional intern in college, worked in D.C., and this is as intense as I recall it ever being. And I grew up in the ‘60s. It’s not just ‘Are you Republican or Democrat?’ It’s ‘What do you think about abortion, affirmative action, DE&I, gun control, gender identification?’ There are so many issues wound up in our politics, and none of them is just casual.”
Imagine this plausible scenario: Sarah and Ted, two employees who were hired recently, join a Zoom call with a group of their co-workers. When Sarah turns on her camera, a clearly visible poster behind her reads “Biden 2024.” When Ted joins, his “MAGA” hat can be seen on the bookcase behind him. The initial conversation quickly turns awkward, and several attendees are noticeably uncomfortable. There doesn’t seem to be a way forward without getting into an argument.
It can be tempting to lay the blame for heightened political workplace acrimony at least partially on the increase in remote and hybrid work. According to Tracy Avin, founder of TroopHR, a New York City-based national network for HR leaders, often missing in remote communications “are body language, tone and other nonverbal cues that help [convey] intent and emotions. This can lead to misunderstandings and escalate conflicts.”
Christopher M. Repole, an attorney with Jackson Lewis P.C. in New York City, agrees. “Tensions and misunderstandings are harder to defuse in a remote work environment. That has contributed to [political] divisions,” he says.
However, SHRM research indicates that employees who work fully in person are more likely to say they’ve experienced political disagreements in the workplace (50 percent) than are hybrid workers (36 percent) and fully remote workers (39 percent). But work experts say that opining on political issues from behind a computer screen may nevertheless embolden some employees to be more hostile or insulting than they otherwise would be with co-workers they'll see in person the next day.
“Employees who know they don't have to face a co-worker with whom they disagree may feel more empowered to make an inflammatory statement,” Bunting says.
Like other types of conflict, companies can handle disruptive, politically grounded arguments in virtual environments in efficient, effective ways, Bunting says, such as reminding employees to keep to the meeting agenda at hand and maintaining traditional barriers between political talk and the workplace. “Separating two employees who simply are not willing to try to get along is easier with remote employees,” she notes.
Setting Ground Rules
Experts recommend that company leaders be prepared to enforce their organizations’ policies on workplace interactions if employees become combative at work. Ideally, such policies, in light of the National Labor Relation Board’s 2023 Stericycle decision, should be narrowly tailored and advance a legitimate and substantial business need, without cooling any Section 7 and 8(a)(1) rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) to organize and engage in protected, concerted activities regarding the terms and conditions of employment.
Research indicates that senior management has considerable influence over the state of office politics in general. In a 2023 report by Pepperdine Graziadio Business School based on a survey of 800 office workers (400 who manage others and 400 who do not), one-third of respondents said that managers (33 percent) and senior management (32 percent) have the most influence over the level of negative office politics and are best positioned to do something about it.
Bunting says that all organizational intervention, investigation, counseling or discipline should proceed the same for both remote and onsite employees.
“Enforce workplace policies evenly, and discipline employees who violate policy offsite in the same manner that [you] would discipline employees who violate policy onsite,” Bunting says. “All employees on company business, regardless of where that business takes place, need to understand that they are subject to all workplace rules, including lawful, respectful workplace policies.”
However, many employers have not articulated their workplace rules regarding political or inflammatory speech. Even among companies that do have such a policy, only 8 percent have communicated it to their employees.
So, what steps can company leaders proactively take as we enter the 2024 election cycle?
Step 1: Prevent
The most experienced managers can have trouble navigating the tension between disagreeing workers, even when disputes don’t warrant discipline. When employees have genuine difficulty working alongside one another, Bunting says it's necessary for supervisors to step in.
Her advice in such cases: Instruct managers to separate workers by shift or location (and if that's not possible, try to limit their interactions with one another), ensure potential disciplinary decisions do not favor one employee over the other, and encourage one-on-one coaching.
“In addition to helping the employees develop empathy and understanding toward each other, the coach [should be] … an outsider, someone who neither employee views as biased,” Repole says. “Bringing in a coach also sends a powerful message that the organization takes the disagreement seriously and expects the parties to find a way to work together.”
‘Discipline employees who violate policy offsite in the same manner that [you] would discipline employees who violate policy onsite.’
To head off hot words or altercations in the first place, workplace experts say company leaders should ensure that their employees are repeatedly trained on company policy about appropriate employee interactions, while not restricting an employee’s rights to engage in protected activity under the NLRA. Although the word “training” can invite yawns, experts say it can be effective in molding proper workplace conduct and preventing politically charged conflicts.
Step 2: Prepare
It can be tempting for organizations to tell employees to refrain entirely from political discourse at work. But Repole says that’s not realistic.
“Particularly in the charged times in which we live,” he says, “workplace disagreements on political and social issues—often passionate disagreements—are inevitable.”
Repole recommends that executives encourage managers to familiarize themselves with the legal protections for certain types of speech. For example, under the NLRA, employees have the right to organize and engage in protected, concerted activities regarding the terms and conditions of employment. This would allow employees, during nonwork time, to distribute information at work supporting a political candidate or viewpoint if it involves a work-related topic, such as employer-sponsored health insurance.
Freedom of speech, as afforded under the First Amendment, applies to the government—not employers—being prohibited from quashing individual speech. But while employers have latitude to restrict or discipline some employee speech, under the NLRA they cannot “chill employees' exercise of their rights under Section 7 of the Act,” which under the Stericycle decision, may allow for some heated and uncivil discourse.
‘Particularly in the charged times in which we live, workplace disagreements on political and social issues—often passionate disagreements—are inevitable.’
Christopher M. Repole
Even when workers are off-duty, their political speech and social media activity—even on a private device using private channels—can upset their colleagues and may violate employer policies against harassment and discrimination, where allowable. Company leaders should instruct people managers to acquaint themselves thoroughly with company policies that spell out when an employee interaction crosses a line.
“Limiting misconduct is usually more effective than banning discussion of specific political topics,” Repole says. “A well-drafted and regularly published policy … can go a long way [toward reminding] employees of their obligation to comply.”
For example, Bunting recalls one worker who repeatedly told colleagues that his political party was superior to theirs. His co-workers complained that he was continually interrupting their work with his comments. HR spoke to him, but the behavior continued, and 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,” Bunting says. “As we have the 2024 general election coming up, I would create the policy and conduct [policy] training by the end of the year, and again during the second quarter of 2024.”
Step 3: Respond
Before the 2020 presidential election, two workers in Alaska spent weeks taunting colleagues about Democratic candidate Joe Biden—calling him “stupid” and “an idiot.” During the Halloween season, the pair came to work wearing masks adorned with American flags. Two other employees took offense and ripped off one person's mask. Soon after, all four began shoving and shouting. Managers sent them home.
Afterward, the workers’ manager asked an Anchorage Daily News advice columnist how to ascertain who started the fight. The columnist's take: The workers who ripped off the mask were wrong. But so were company managers—for letting the Biden detractors’ behavior continue for so long.
Company leaders should pay attention to subtle signs of brewing political discord, which could be as simple as a quip made at a meeting or a semihumorous jab at a co-worker's views.
Workplace experts say a company’s duty is to intervene as soon as respectful disagreements change in tone. If potentially violent behavior is caught early, it may take only a few words from a supervisor, and perhaps a mediator's help, to keep things from escalating.
“There is no substitute for face-to-face interaction,” Repole says. “It's easier to humanize someone you disagree with if they're in a room with you.”
Workplace experts say that if a situation escalates, company leaders should instruct managers to step in quickly and take the following steps:
- Separate the workers.
- Call security, if necessary.
- Send the workers home, if necessary.
- Document everything that transpired.
- Discuss next steps with HR.
By focusing strictly on the behavior, rather than on the personal beliefs of the individuals involved, managers can help put the political nature of the discord aside.
Dana M. Wilkie is a freelance writer in Ormond Beach, Fla.
As the U.S. becomes ever more politically polarized, people are looking to work for organizations with political views that mirror their own. A 2023 survey of 2,000 professionals by HR technology company HiBob found that a significant percentage of employees would leave their employer rather than continue to work for someone with opposing political views. However, those percentages break down to a notable extent along gender and generational lines.
For example, men appear more likely to take action as a result of political misalignment with their employer. While 43 percent of men say they would be deterred from working for a company with opposing political views, 35 percent of women say the same. Similarly, 35 percent of men and 23 percent of women say an employer's opposing political views would prompt them to seek work elsewhere.
The younger workers are, the more likely they are to seek out an employer that agrees with them politically. While 30 percent of workers over age 55 say they would be deterred from working for a company with opposing politics, 39 percent of workers 45-54 and 47 percent of workers 24-44 say the same.
Given the high stakes that many people associate with bringing politics into the workplace, it's not surprising that most employees want to avoid discussing it at all. The majority of survey respondents (59 percent of men and 62 percent of women) say sociopolitical discussions should not occur at work.
A similar survey by Insight Global found that a full 85 percent of employees prefer that politics be kept out of the workplace entirely. Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) say they fear that testy political discussions can lead to tension with colleagues, and 35 percent said they've considered talking to HR as a result of a conversation about politics. However, among Generation Z and Millennial employees, almost half (45 percent) said they are "inclined" to engage in workplace conversations regarding politics. —Barbara Gabriel
SHRM’s information and resources can help business leaders better prepare for navigating political discourse at work.
SHRM Resources: Politics in the Workplace
This resource hub page gives employers practical strategies and suggestions for creating a workplace environment of empathy and respect.
Companies Should Nail Down Precise Business Reasons for Workplace Policies
Employers will need to think carefully about how to defend some of their corporate policies, such as ones about cameras at a worksite, social media use and appropriate workplace conduct, in light of a recent decision by the NLRB.
Examples of Disclaimer and Policy Changes in Response to NLRB Handbook Decision
Employers who are revising disclaimers and policies in response to the NLRB decision in August should replace broad, ambiguous wording with specifics.
Toolkit: Managing Workplace Conflict
This toolkit examines the causes and effects of workplace tension and conflict, the reasons why employers should address it, and how they can do so promptly and equitably.
Ask HR: How Can We Heal Rifts Caused by Politics?
SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, offers effective measures to tone down political tension in the workplace.
Talking Taboo: Making the Most of Polarizing Discussions at Work
SHRM Chief Knowledge Officer Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, explains why some controversial topics are taboo at work, while others are not, and offers navigation strategies for difficult conversations.