With elections a few months away, politics dominate newsfeeds, social media and discussions with family and friends. In what has been a particularly divisive, partisan and personal campaign season, opportunities for disagreements, arguments and hurt feelings abound.
With blurry boundaries between friendships and work relationships, business leaders should be mindful of the place that political discussions can and should have in their workplaces.
While there are no legal prohibitions against political talk at work, of course, prudent leaders should be clear with their staff about the culture they want to promote and support.
Leaders walk a fine line between allowing staff to express their personal thoughts and feelings and managing a potential source of conflict. The sensitivity to political talk will be different at different organizations.
For example, employees at a labor union or a think tank likely will engage in political discussions on a regular basis, and individuals within those organizations will have their own opinions that should be respected.
When in doubt, leaders can rely on their organization’s mission and values to determine if discussions about politics are appropriate.
The expressed values of an organization should be broad enough to be inclusive of people from diverse backgrounds and specific enough to be linked with behaviors that the organization will support and accept. Consistent and prominent communication about the mission, values and acceptable behaviors will go a long way toward heading off problems before they occur.
Some points to keep in mind:
Squelching all political discussion might be detrimental to the work environment. Casual discussion about topics not related to work gives staff a break and helps develop relationships that build trust, all of which helps the organization.
Leaders should get ahead of the issue before political discussions become personal or create an environment in which teamwork falters. Coaching staff members about the importance of positive communication and its impact on teamwork and trust will go a long way toward avoiding conflict.
Helping staff understand the difference between expression of personal beliefs — which can be risky — and attacking the beliefs of others — which should be unacceptable — can help deflate tense situations.
In some circumstances, political discussions can become personal enough to have a severely negative effect on someone’s work experience. For example, political comments that can be interpreted as discriminatory about protected employment categories, including age, national origin, religion, gender, veteran status and disability, are not protected by the First Amendment at work, and may violate organizational policy or state or federal law.
The negative impact of discriminatory comments at work can be disastrous on morale, and leaders should not be cowed by a threat that the employer is impinging on First Amendment rights.
While a policy prohibiting political discussions at work might be overbearing, the display of political campaign signs and slogans creates its own problems. If your organization has clear values and expectations about respect and communication, you will have a solid foundation from which to have a difficult conversation, especially if the political talk is offensive.
If you act with consistency and kindness, the majority of your staff will appreciate and respect your decisions — and it is hoped the staff members who present political signs and displays will respect your decisions as well.
If the issue becomes pervasive, consider a policy that bans the display of political or other content that potentially can create conflict at work.
If a staff member is offended by political commentary, clear channels for raising and addressing issues that they see as harassing or discriminatory are critical to promoting a civil work environment.
The channels should give multiple opportunities for staff to bring their issues forward (to a supervisor, the human resources department, the president or CEO, or an anonymous hotline) and protect workers who bring concerns forward from retaliation.
Staff members should be notified and trained regularly about the organization’s policies and the channels for addressing concerns.
For some, the constant stream of tweets, posts and blogs can be overwhelming and coming to work is a welcome break from political talk.
In the end, you and your staff should cast your votes for understanding and campaign for teamwork, positive communication and trust.