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Should Organizations Embrace Political Diversity?

Inclusive organizations want employees to be productive while being themselves. Yet when asked whether political beliefs should be part of the diversity and inclusion conversation, experts had strong—often negative—reactions to the idea.

An organization that embraces political diversity is a place where people with differing political affiliations or philosophies about governance and public policies should be able to discuss their views in a calm, informative manner. The goal is to have a broad range of beliefs and values in the organization and the opportunity for employees to learn something valuable—about others, and even about themselves.

It’s not clear if any large U.S.-based company promotes political diversity actively among its workers. Nor is there consensus about what political diversity is, what it looks like, and how it plays out.

A recent line of research is adding nuance to the issue. Researchers at the University of South Carolina reported just before Election Day in 2012 that the brains of self-identified Democrats and Republicans are hard-wired differently and might be predisposed to hold different values and perceptions. The study examined MRI scans of 24 university students and built on previous research in the field.

Whether political dispositions are based on genetics or chemistry—or are developed based on rational analysis—putting the concept of political diversity into practice is fraught with peril, say some in the HR community. Many say it should not even be attempted.

“I’m against it, mostly because it has nothing to do with the job at hand,” said Bruce Weinstein, who calls himself “The Ethics Guy” and wrote Ethical Intelligence: Five Principles for Untangling Your Toughest Problems at Work and Beyond (New World Library, 2011). “It can be harmful to your relationships with your employees. It can be harmful to your relationships with your clients,” he told SHRM Online.

Nate Regier, Ph.D., a communications specialist with Next Element Consulting, sees it differently. “HR can create a safe place for opinions to be shared, not pushed,” he said. “People who tend to share their beliefs in a healthy way tend not to push their beliefs.”

“Unfortunately, so often, discussions about religion and politics are taboo,” he told SHRM Online, adding that one of the possible advantages of political diversity conversations is “more informed and more enlightened employees.”

Others take a middle ground. “It really depends on the employer,” said communication coach, speaker and author Roshini Rajkumar. “There are some industries and brands known for being very inclusive, for being concerned about issues in the community,” where it could work, she said.

HR’s View on Politics at Work

Political expression is not protected by federal law or regulation. During the 2012 elections, news reports focused on a few employers that suggested or even tried to dictate how its employees should vote. These situations were among the concerns cited by several of the participants in a vigorous LinkedIn discussion of the topic of promoting political diversity in the workplace—most of whom opposed HR involvement.

Among the discussion participants who agreed to be quoted in this article was Laurie A. Rhind, president of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) virtual student chapter at Argosy University, which is based in Orange, Calif. “HR has a place for this topic, because we teach tolerance,” she wrote SHRM Online.

“As adults, are we not allowed to say after a good discussion: ‘Let’s agree to disagree?’ … And whatever happened to presenting information factually for people to make up their own mind?” she added.

LinkedIn discussion participant Paul Love, president of the SHRM student chapter at the University of North Texas, said in an e-mail interview that he could envision some advantages to promoting political diversity in its broadest sense, such as by having “healthy discussions and ‘I never thought about it that way’ moments.”

“This may also help the team to really understand each other better, although it really is not work-related and mostly irrelevant to the culture and jobs,” he wrote SHRM Online in an e-mail.

He added: “Another important thing to note is that not everyone in a political party even believes the same thing or thinks the same on everything. I think this will help … promote individual thinking.”

In the end, however, Love believes that political diversity “is not critical and vital to the work environment and does not bring value to the company. I would highly recommend not engaging in political diversity.”

Author Joseph Grenny said that in a perfect world he would like to see political diversity explored in “a forum where people like to learn. It could be an extremely healthy kind of discussion,” particularly if HR “makes room for the discussion” but does not take charge of it.

At the same time, Grenny, who is the co-author of several books, including Crucial Conversations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior (McGraw Hill, 2005), worries that any HR role could be misinterpreted. “One concern is that it might appear that there’s a hidden agenda. People will be suspicious of your intentions.”

Political Discussions at the Water Cooler

“Politics is one of the fearsome foursome [not to be discussed at work]. The others are sex, money and religion,” said Weinstein. “In certain contexts, you can have a rational conversation about anything. But it just takes one person” who gets out of line for it all to go wrong.

Tackling political diversity in the workplace, he said, “can harm your career, particularly if you and your boss have a conflict. If you lose your job, how can you be sure that it had nothing to do with your political differences?”

Added Weinstein: “It’s best left outside the workplace. … It’s a really well-intentioned idea that in practical terms is just too dangerous.”

Regier recognizes those pitfalls, but says it’s worth trying to start a discussion. “The ground rules would have to be very clear: We encourage the sharing of beliefs and discourage the pushing of beliefs, or it’s over,” he stated.

There could be a practical benefit: “Political diversity might be a strategic advantage in hiring.”

Regier said he sees religious diversity as “somewhat similar to political diversity, because people are living and practicing their beliefs. Religious diversity is a little more private. Political diversity deals with the things people are grappling with every day,” he noted.

Instead of simply opposing what others say or believe, participants should “come forward with a solution that [they] want to promote. It comes down to the notion of curiosity,” stated Regier.

Rajkumar agreed that encouraging political discussions can be a worthy experiment. “If an employer feels that this could contribute to a healthy workplace, it could be good. Perhaps there could be political forums or issue events. They could be during or after work. Or a brown bag lunch,” she said.

“It could be very beneficial … if you think that your employees can handle it.

There would have to be ground rules that say that we can allow beliefs to be openly displayed.”

She added that political opinions abound in the workplace and are bound to be expressed one way or another.

“Employers can’t run from it.”

Steve Bates is a freelance writer and a former editor for SHRM Online.

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