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When Social and Political Unrest Come to Work

How managers handled the fallout from acts of racial injustice and a wrenching presidential election

More from This Series

Whether you're a brand-new manager or have been managing people for decades, you've likely experienced the past 12 months as one challenge after another, pummeling workplaces around the globe. The COVID-19 pandemic, economic uncertainty, business closures, massive layoffs, widespread civil unrest, unprecedented political upheaval—these developments hit fast and furiously, and managers were the ones who had to navigate the workplace fallout. This article is the third in a series that explores those challenges, how new and longtime managers tackled them, and what they learned along the way.

As if the onslaught of the coronavirus wasn't enough for workplace managers to handle, the past 12 months also brought tremendous social and political tumult that most employees had not seen in their lifetimes. Many of those employees brought their resulting fear, anxiety and anger to the workplace, and it was their managers who sometimes had to handle the fallout.

"An employee experiencing [these] emotions may be disengaged at work, which can cause a lack of communication to management or other co-workers," said Charles Ellis Bush II, an attorney in Ice Miller's labor and employment group, based in Indianapolis. "Employees may also exhibit an uncharacteristic lack of initiative or motivation to go the extra mile. The emotions may also manifest through increased errors or mistakes; incomplete, untimely or poorly executed projects or assignments; workplace safety issues; and, of course, absenteeism. The key indicator here is a change in behavior from how individuals normally present themselves in the workplace."

Employees complained when co-workers wore Black Lives Matter logos on shirts, masks and pins. Some companies announced that logos of any type weren't allowed on workers' clothing and that pins weren't allowed for safety reasons or violated dress codes. Often, their reasoning was that politics don't belong in the workplace.

Bush advised employers "to not only make a public statement denouncing racism, but to also directly and actively engage with [Black] employees as individuals.  

"With that said," he continued, "I understand and appreciate that there is a difference between a front-line manager engaging in a difficult conversation with an employee and a high-level executive's general statement to the entire organization."

How managers dealt with the anxiety, anger and fear surrounding racial tensions depended "on a number of factors, including the size of the manager's team, the work environment, and the relationship the manager has developed with his or her employees over time," Bush said.

Recent research by the Society for Human Resource Management found that shortly before the 2020 presidential election, 44 percent of HR professionals reported intensified political volatility at work. In 2016, only 26 percent reported increased political volatility compared to prior election seasons.

Political Tension at Work

In 2020, 44 percent of HR professionals reported intensified political volatility at work compared to previous years. In 2016, only 26 percent reported increased political volatility compared to prior election seasons, according to a recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey.

Nearly 3 in 4 HR professionals (74 percent) said their organization had prohibited political attire or accessories such as clothing endorsing or opposing political candidates, parties or social movements.

Nearly one-third of workers (32 percent) were worried about how the presidential election's outcome would impact their workplace.

One-quarter of workers (25 percent) said they felt the 2020 election was causing more political division than the 2016 election.

Four in 10 workers (41 percent) said their organization discouraged employees from discussing politics while at work.

"Eighty percent of HR professionals say their organizations have not set guidelines on communicating about politics at work—and that's a problem," said SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP. "Organizations need to proactively set clear and consistent guidelines—aligned with their mission and values—on what is and isn't acceptable behavior at work. With 17 percent of workers reporting being uncomfortable working with colleagues who hold different political views, their leaders can help reduce tension and discomfort to create a better workplace."

Source: SHRM Research and the AmeriSpeak omnibus, NORC at the University of Chicago.

"For some people, [the presidential campaign and election were] really painful," said John Crossman, CEO of Crossman Career Builders, a corporate coaching and advising company in Winter Park, Fla. "I've seen it in clients and at other companies. I have a friend who thinks Trump was the best president of his lifetime. And I have known people who felt legitimately traumatized by the Trump presidency, such that it was causing them panic. If people feel traumatized, they feel like they're out of control. I had to learn to be more compassionate to the people who felt traumatized."

Bush said that, in general, the same guidelines for how managers should deal with employees facing other traumatic issues should be followed in this situation.

"The manager should, at a minimum, show the employee that the manager cares and is concerned about the employee's well-being, and ask the employee what, if anything, the manager can do to help the employee overcome any problems he or she may be experiencing," Bush said. "The manager should also emphasize to the employee that he or she is valued, appreciated and supported in the workplace, and that the employee has a safe space to voice concerns if the employee wishes to do so."

But managers should never coax a worker into discussing traumatic or sensitive issues if the employee appears reluctant or uncomfortable doing so.

"Likewise, I do not believe a manager should ask a [Black] employee to share his or her opinion on race-related issues unless the employee volunteers to do so," Bush said.

Listening, Taking Action

When Allie Kelly learned that her direct reports had reached out to every person of color at work, asking how they were feeling following the deaths of Arbery, Taylor and Floyd and if there was some way the organization should help, she decided to spring into action.

"When we realized these conversations were going on, we decided we needed to do something," said Kelly, CMO for JazzHR, a talent recruiting agency. "We didn't have a dedicated diversity initiative, which we now have. We didn't have someone leading the charge and having regular meetings [around diversity and race relations]. Now we have a whole committee of volunteers with goals around diversity in hiring and creating a more transparent workplace. We became more communicative and proactive in seeking out education, especially around the Black Lives Matter movement and around persistent inequities in the workplace and society at large."

When it came to the divisive presidential election, John Crossman, at first, "just tried to listen."

"There was so much stress about all of these things going on," he said. "Sometimes people just need to feel their feelings and speak their truth and just talk about it."

And when addressing the Black Lives Matter movement, Crossman "tried to move into actionable items, like [asking] how could we make an impact with integrity and do something that helped."

A longtime supporter of historically Black colleges and universities, he invited workers to accompany him to events at the Florida A&M University College of Law in Orlando, where he had done a lot of volunteering. Many employees joined him.

He also encouraged employees to take concrete steps to promote racial justice, such as donating to or volunteering for causes that help address the issue.

"If you have money, give money," he said. "If you have time, give your time."

In the next article: Lessons learned from a year unlike any other.