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Ask HR: How Can Workplaces Manage Political and Social Differences?

SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is answering HR questions as part of a series for USA Today.

Do you have an HR or work-related question you'd like him to answer? Submit it here. 


I run a company with just under 200 employees. In recent years, many political and social discussions have made their way into our workplace, taking a toll on our morale. The George Floyd killing, Roe v. Wade being overturned, the 2020 election and school shootings have spawned extremely contentious interactions among our employees and even led to some disruptions in work. Some companies have banned certain topics among their employees or tried to remain neutral. Is this even realistic? How can we get out in front of some of the divisive topics without necessarily taking a side? —Avila

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: Banning a particular topic, like politics, is not a realistic option for workplaces. Workers will always talk about the pressing news of the day—in recent times, this means politics. As an employer, I'm sure you value diversity of thought, but you also want to avoid counterproductive conflicts. Suppressing employee communication in one area might signal that you do not value your employees' opinions or, worse, your employees themselves.

Suppressing workplace conversation isn't a good idea on many fronts. On top of this, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) protects those conversations if they veer toward political parties and their labor policies. According to NLRB regulations, employers cannot restrict employees from discussing workplace conditions, such as salary and benefits.

So how can you get in front of this issue without necessarily taking a side? Start by reiterating your company's values and commitment to a diverse, inclusive workplace. Create a workplace conduct policy with expectations for respectful communication if you don't already have one.

Many leaders do not want any distractions brought on by the midterm elections, as they could lower productivity. Here are a few steps you can take to limit distractions and reduce heated discussions in the workplace:

  • Walk the talk and encourage respectful discussion. Set the tone for professionalism in the workplace.
  • Teach positive communication and conflict resolution to show how those tactics can be used when co-workers disagree.

The goal should be to foster understanding between colleagues, not win an argument. Ultimately, people should be able to disagree politically or otherwise without being disagreeable.

I have had some negative experiences with my company's HR department. It seems that they put my employer's interest ahead of the employees' at every turn. Is HR responsible for the interest of workers? —Meena

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr.: I'm sorry you've had negative experiences with your HR team. They should represent the mutual interests of the employer and employees. When members of your HR department handle situations differently from what you would expect, they aren't necessarily putting the employer's interest ahead of yours.

Many employees may not realize how laws affect every aspect of an employee's relationship with a company, from the hiring process to the benefits and compensation provided to addressing performance issues and conflicts—even termination. HR is responsible for ensuring the protection of employees' rights as outlined in federal, state and local laws. For example, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against candidates and employees based on prescribed characteristics, like race, gender, national origin and religion. HR professionals must be vigilant as they work at all organizational levels to ensure compliance with applicable laws. 

Outside of compliance, the HR function, like most departments and positions, is typically tasked with achieving business objectives, such as supporting the company's operations, profitability and growth. HR teams often work to achieve goals by developing policies and practices, hiring qualified employees, providing fair benefits and compensation, and engaging with and developing strategic initiatives to help employees continue working at their best in a professional environment.

A good HR team should represent the interest of the employer and also be acutely aware of the expectations and preferences of the workforce. Without a viable functioning enterprise, workers' livelihoods are in jeopardy. Conversely, good HR should also understand the value of workers. CEOs consistently cite talent among their chief concerns, even above raising financial capital. So, acquiring and retaining people should also be a top priority for HR.

It's possible that in your situation, there could be a very valid reason why your HR team made a decision or took action that you perceived as being in the employer's favor. If they did not communicate it clearly, then ask. Asking clarifying questions in a nonconfrontational way may help you better understand why decisions are made and can help you have a more trusting, open and honest relationship with your HR team.