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Navigating Politics in the Workplace

Even in the most positive and optimistic times, politics can be a difficult topic for the workplace. When you have a political climate charged with social anxiety, a health crisis within a pandemic, and an uncertain economic forecast for employers, you have a perfect storm for a stressful work environment.

It may be unrealistic to state politics as "off-limits," and based on statistics, we know that many individuals find political topics acceptable for office chit chat. Employers should also be mindful that while free speech is protected outside the organization, there are rights to limit discussions that may be threatening or harassing inside the workplace. There is also a silver lining in the opportunity created by this anxious environment. Employers can provide support to employees in a time of need, in an unprecedented way, offering relief and solutions for both the organization and individual employees.

Although HR professionals cannot entirely avoid political conversations, leaders must take an active role in preventing any interactions from escalating into a conflict scenario. Here is the ABC framework that can help employers keep the peace as election day approaches and leverage in the weeks that follow.

A: Acknowledge and Accept

Employers can develop and post their own "rules of engagement," or a list of what's acceptable for their organization's political discussions. This helps to acknowledge that every employee has a right to their view and reminds others to accept differences in a respectful and non-harassing manner. The rules of engagement document should also serve as a reference place for employees, noting how politics discussions shouldn't distract from productivity, and that employees shouldn’t feel intimidated or pressured to endorse or support a party or candidate. Leaders should also provide employees with a method to report any discrimination towards them or other co-workers.

B: Be Transparent

Before a passionate argument gets out of hand, consider laying the groundwork for acceptable and non-acceptable conversations at the next management or all-employee meeting. Emotions can run high when politics becomes part of a water-cooler conversation. Leaders can take a proactive approach to avoid this by having a transparent discussion with employees and managers.

By making a visible, authentic statement of understanding and the potential for anger and frustration, employees are not blindsided or unprepared when emotions erupt. Managers are also more prepared to handle disagreements and ease tensions when referring to company policy or statements made during the meeting or email where policies were unveiled. Leadership can provide comments or testimonials about their own emotions and frustrations that stem from the current environment. This "human" aspect is an equalizer and often reduces tensions when employees know that this affects all levels of the organization.

C: Control What You Can

Free speech rights don’t absolve leaders from monitoring workplace discussions. Managers have a responsibility to make sure employees feel comfortable in their environment but are also within legal boundaries to stop any disruptions that affect customer service or the team’s overall performance.

While lack of control can apply to much of the pandemic and work/life integration, this is an incredibly important aspect for employers to utilize. While we cannot control each employee's political view or the resulting stresses of our current divisive climate, the employer can focus on productivity, a positive working environment and solutions that promote positive mental health. Some solutions include providing reminders, via email or as part of a Zoom meeting, that note testimonials or EAP resources along with phone and contact information.

Employers can also consider adding a short- or long-term resiliency or stress management virtual solution that provides employees easy access and tools/assessments for themselves and their dependents. Many providers have enhanced or developed new apps that offer impactful and easily accessed tools for employees to use.

It can be difficult for companies to govern how employees talk about politics in the workplace. On the one hand, there should be a zero-tolerance policy towards hate speech or in-person hostility. On the other hand, organizations can benefit from meaningful, engaging, and constructive debates, even if it's unrelated to work. Striking the right balance will require building an intrinsically inclusive culture. Hence, every employee feels a sense of belonging and can work well with anyone, no matter their political affiliation.

For additional insights on how to navigate political conversations in the workplace, as well as what HR leaders need to be mindful of this election season, watch the on-demand webinar, The 2020 Election’s Impact on Healthcare and the Workforce.