Politics in the Workplace & How to Handle it.

October 1, 2020

With the election nearing, it is the time of year when the individuals become more politically engaged, research party candidates, and exercise their voting rights. This political season is especially interesting as the country seems to be extremely divided as to perspectives and preferences on a lot of issues. Further, attitudes and passion over certain issues have many people speaking out and sharing their beliefs and ideas concerning who and what is best for the region and country.

Associated Industries often field employer questions on employees’ behavior during the months leading up to the election of government officials. Ownership and managers ask, “Can I control what my staff discusses while at work?” The answer to that is, yes and no. Clear as mud, right? Well, we have collected a few practices and guidelines to help employers navigate and best direct the political discussions within the workplace.

Know the context of your organization

Public employees have different rights than private-sector employees. For those readers who are serving in roles with public employers do not fret, you do have support available. Follow the lead of your Human Resources department and the policies and procedures set in place, and when necessary, reach out to your organization’s designated legal counsel to gather specific direction on how to proceed. Employers may also need to navigate the limits and boundaries of an established collective bargaining agreement, so proceed with caution, do thorough research, and use your resources. 

Private employers generally have the right to set rules and limitations for employees when they are performing work-related functions on company time, or on company premises; and the remaining sections of this article are geared toward the private employment settings.

Revisit or establish boundaries

Employee handbooks frequently have policies that communicate expectations on professionalism, being respectful, dress code, use of company resources, and even anti-bullying. These types of policies are a great tool to review during staff meetings as the political cycle heats up. Setting limitations during work-related functions that “MAGA” hats or “Riding with Biden” shirts are not permitted forms of attire should be consistent with the employer’s dress code or personal appearance policy. Limiting these visuals can aid in decreasing the likelihood of a confrontation with a colleague, customer, or vendor. Asking your staff to minimize their political banter during work hours is also a fair practice, as you manage performance and production across your team. Encourage them to exercise their right to vote and use their time off away from work if they wish to express their political perspectives. Just be sure these boundaries are established and communicated in a fair and equal manner for all staff; no matter what side of the political pendulum you prefer as the employer.

Managers and supervisors should avoid political discussions

We live in a country that provides us with a right to freedom of speech. We also live in a country that has significant diversity of thoughts and beliefs, and other individuals’ thoughts and beliefs do not always align with our own. Managers should continue engaging with their team on job-related matters alone and attempt to avoid situations where they may inadvertently learn information about subordinates’ political leanings. To the extent possible, managers and supervisors should avoid political discussions especially with employees over whom they have authority. HR should remind managers and supervisors that they must avoid expressing bias for or against employees based upon the employee’s political beliefs and opinions. This type of approach may help to reduce potential claims of favoritism or discrimination against the manager or supervisor and the organization.

When political conversations happen in the workplace

If an employee, supervisor, or manager finds themselves in a political conversation what should they do? Most importantly – remain civil and keep a respective tone. The person who finds themselves in an unwanted political discussion should try to shift the topic of conversation to something work-related, or even to the weather and know when to walk away. Simply stating that we are all entitled to our views and opinions and that you would prefer to not be involved in a political discussion during work hours is a good approach.

Managers, supervisors, and HR professionals who may overhear a conversation occurring may need to intervene and redirect the situation. Some people are drawn to political topics and cannot resist perpetuating them. By redirecting employees to return to their job at hand, or focus on solving a workplace challenge, the intervening party can increase the odds of avoiding the challenge of mediating a heated moment between those with opposing views.

When an employee is determined to carry on expressing their political passions, supervisors, managers, and HR professionals should identify this quickly and be direct with the employee if their behavior is unacceptable. Overtly stating that the discussion has become too heated for casual workplace banter is a clear way to redirect other actions and set the tone moving forward. Following up on the conversation by reminding the employee of relevant company policies related to professionalism and respect is important.

Political conversation in the workplace can be tough to manage; however, planning and review of company policies with managers and supervisors can provide staff with the tools they need to deescalate situations if needed.