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Navigating the Workplace Political Minefield

In today's politically charged atmosphere, managers must be prepared to enforce their companies' policies on workplace interactions—and hold employees responsible for maintaining them.

A group of people standing in a room.

He 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.

Thats one of the more challenging situations Kelly Bunting has seen managers try to navigate when political discourse in the workplace—whether about an upcoming election, a Supreme Court ruling or a social protest—has gotten out of hand. Such situations can occur at a physical or remote office, a company function, or a social outing with colleagues after work hours.

Bunting, a shareholder with Greenberg Traurig LLP in Philadelphia, says shes 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 its growing harder for managers to prevent these conflicts.

In SHRM's 2022 Politics at Work Study, 20 percent of HR professionals agreed there was greater political volatility at work than there was three years earlier. SHRM found that nearly a quarter of U.S. workers (24 percent) have personally experienced political affiliation bias, including preferential treatment or undue negative treatment based on their political positions or opinions, compared to 12 percent of U.S. workers in 2019.

It doesnt have to be clearly over the line for a lot of people to say, Im 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. Its not just, Are you Republican or Democrat? Its 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.

Remote Conflict

Sarah and Ted, two employees who were hired recently, join a Zoom call with a group of their coworkers. 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. As both Sarah's and Teds manager, what do you do?

It can be tempting to lay the blame for heightened political workplace acrimony at least partly on the explosion of remote and hybrid work. Often missing in remote communications are body language, tone and other nonverbal cues that help [convey] intent and emotions, says Tracy Avin, founder of TroopHR, a New York City-based national network for HR leaders. 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.

“There are so many issues wound up in our politics, and none of them is just casual.”            —Stephen Paskoff

However, SHRM research indicates that employees who work fully in person are more likely to say theyve experienced political disagreements in the workplace (50 percent) than hybrid workers (36 percent) and fully remote workers (39 percent). Opining on political issues from behind a computer screen may nevertheless embolden some employees to be more hostile or insulting than they would with coworkers theyll see in person the next day. Employees who know they don't have to face a coworker with whom they disagree may feel more empowered to make an inflammatory statement, says Bunting.

Setting Ground Rules

But managers can handle inappropriate, politics-grounded conflict via remote communications 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.

Workplace experts recommend that managers be prepared to enforce their companies policies on workplace interactions. Ideally, such policies should avoid defining misconduct or disruption, but rather spell out when a discussion, display or interaction crosses a company line—for example, shouting, insults and ridicule among coworkers.

Bunting says that all managerial 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,” says Bunting. All employees on company business, regardless of where that business takes place, need to understand that they are subject to all workplace rules, including respectful workplace policies.

However, many employers have not articulated their workplace policy 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 people managers proactively take as we enter the 2024 election cycle?

Step One: Prepare

It can be tempting for managers to tell employees to refrain entirely from political discourse at work.

But thats not realistic, Repole says. Particularly in the charged times in which we live, workplace disagreements on political and social issues—often passionate disagreements—are inevitable.

“Discipline employees who violate policy offsite in the same manner that you would discipline employees who violate policy onsite.” —Kelly Bunting

Repole recommends that managers familiarize themselves with the legal protections for certain types of speech. For example, employees can distribute information at work supporting a political candidate or viewpoint if it involves a work-related topic, according to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). But the act doesnt protect workers who use discriminatory or harassing language or violence.

Even when workers are off duty, their political speech and social media activity—even on a private device and using private channels—can upset coworkers and may violate employer policies against harassment and discrimination. Managers should acquaint themselves thoroughly with company policies that spell out when an employee interaction crosses a line.

Repole says that by the time a client phones him about political issues causing discord at work, its most likely that an employee has already violated a rule of conduct. The disturbances his clients describe involve raised voices, personal insults and, in one instance, an employee physically threatening a manager while arguing about COVID vaccine mandates.

A good policy bans such behavior, Repole says, and a good manager will know the policy inside-out, so that when an incident occurs, they are armed with the authority to intervene and discipline if necessary. 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.

Bunting recalls one worker who repeatedly told colleagues that his political party was superior to others. His coworkers complained that he was continually interrupting their work with his comments. HR spoke to him, but the behavior continued. HR disciplined him for violating its 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 Two: 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.

“Particularly in the charged times in which we live, workplace disagreements on political and social issues—often passionate disagreements—are inevitable.” —Christopher M. Repole

Afterward, the workers manager asked an Anchorage Daily News advice columnist how to ascertain who started the fight. The columnists take: The workers who ripped off the mask were wrong. So were company managers—for letting the Biden detractors behavior continue for so long.

Managers should pay attention to subtle signs of brewing political discord, which could be as simple as a quip made at a meeting, a semihumorous jab at a coworker's views, or once-benign political signs at a desk that have turned increasingly edgy. Workplace experts say a managers 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 manager, and perhaps a mediators help, to keep things from escalating.

I often advise managers to meet with disputing employees in person, and for the employees to meet with each other in person, with appropriate mediation, Repole says. If possible, managers [should] help workers see that they may have legitimate differences. There is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. It is easier to humanize someone you disagree with if they are in a room with you.

Workplace experts say that if a situation does come to shouts, name-calling, harassment, threats or violence—anything that might violate company policy—managers must 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, be it mediation, a warning, administrative leave or termination.

By focusing strictly on the behavior that violates company policy, rather than on the individuals involved, managers can put the political nature of the discord aside.

Step Three: Prevent

There will be times when a dispute doesnt warrant discipline, but even the most experienced manager can have trouble navigating the tension between disagreeing workers. According to a December 2022 survey of more than 1,000 workers by Zety, a provider of online career services, more than 1 in 3 respondents have felt uncomfortable at work because of political discussions. One in 5 said they had difficulty working alongside a colleague because of the latters political opinions. This actually happens quite often, Bunting says.

Her advice in such cases: Separate workers by shift or location (and if thats not possible, try to limit their interaction with one another); ensure that your decisions do not favor one employee over the other; and consider 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.

To head off hot words or altercations in the first place, workplace experts say managers should ensure that their subordinates are repeatedly trained on company policy about appropriate employee interactions. Although the word training can invite yawns, experts say training can be effective in molding proper workplace conduct and preventing politically charged conflicts.

But mandated viewing of videos with animated characters that employees scroll through in half an hour arent the most effective in this case. The best training, those interviewed say, is provided in person, uses role-playing, and videotapes participants so they can objectively see how they come across. Such training specifies the types of words and actions that can be inflammatory and models how a debate can be kept civil, without threatening words and tones.

Such training can foster empathy and understanding in the workplace, Repole says, and minimize the chance that disagreements develop into antagonism or worse.

Dana M. Wilkie is a freelance writer living in Ormond Beach, FL. 


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