Making Room for Productive Politics at the Office

Janet Burns
June 20, 2019

Politics is the topic that will send even the most finely tuned dinner parties and working relationships off the rails. An ever-fertile field for distraction, Groucho Marx called talking politics “the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”

In times of political change, though, failing to acknowledge employees’ politics at the office often yields the same result as ignoring any elephant (or donkey) that’s in the conference room: simply, it’s not going anywhere, and makes the work day harder.

Recently, studies have suggested that employees are working through political tension and its burdens on their work-life on their own. According to HR and relationship experts, however, it’s up to managers to bring their skillset to the table, and offer workers ways to manage discussions (and even disagreements) while leading by example. And always, of course, by listening.

Politics happen—so what’s next?

It’s in the air, and in the numbers. Over the past year or so, residents from around the U.S. have reported feeling the strain of political tumult at home, work, and just about everywhere else.

Toward the end of last year’s presidential campaign, surveys also suggested that such tension was increasingly affecting employees’ workdays. In October of 2016, the Society for Human Resource Management found that 52% of organizations polled reported an increase in political volatility over previous election years, a rate which had doubled since that May. In September, the American Psychological Association's Politics in the Workplace survey also reported that 26% of employees surveyed reported having seen or overhead arguments about politics while at work.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, tensions seem to have stayed aloft in some offices following the Obama-Trump transition. In March 2017, a Gallup survey found that 58% of workers reported increased discussion of politics in the prior four months, while one in 10 said that such discussions have had a negative impact on their ability to work—a low number, Gallup pointed out, but one that’s worth acknowledging.

And while noisy headlines and political differences may effectively be forces of nature, both management and employees have been recognizing the importance of how we handle such conflicts at work or elsewhere. Last year, high-end furniture sales manager Michael Lopreste commented to NPR that, despite his bipartisan upbringing and appreciation for political debate, conversations with clients and coworkers have often been quick to sour. "I feel like we've lost tact, and we've lost the ability to approach things delicately or to be able to read the room," he said.

NPR pointed out that for many, the campaign season leading up to our current climate was also “heavy on anger,” producing a range of powerful emotions that stick around long after election dust has settled. When those bad feelings creep into the workplace, potentially putting employee happiness and productivity and risk, it’s up to employers to help make sure they can be safely and productively addressed. And the best way to address hurt feelings, of course, is by talking.

It’s management’s job to start conversations the right way

When businesses accept that political talk in the workplace is inevitable, their options for helping manage these discussions start to unfold. According to NPR, recognizing employees’ legal rights while they’re at work is an important place to start.

For example, federal labor laws may protect employees’ right to discuss paid leave, minimum wage, or equal pay at the office, these being factors that affect their employment. As CBS News pointed out, too, companies that ban election or political talk but sign off on discussing sports, for example, could find themselves facing Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints.

At the same time, “careless comments” by employees on such topics as religion, race, and gender could also result in discrimination or harassment claims by their peers. Susan Schoenfeld, a senior legal editor at Business and Legal Resources, told NPR last year, "It only takes one person to have that inflammatory discussion to alienate someone or cause a hostile work environment or potential harassment claim."

She also noted that employees at private companies don’t enjoy a constitutional right to free and political speech while they’re on the clock, so the limits on a person’s political activities at work can legally vary. However, estimates suggest that fewer than one quarter of employers have outlined rules about political behavior in employee contracts, giving companies flexibility as well as responsibility for how politics are handled at work.

According to attorney and communications consultant Jamie Wright, seeing political clashes for what they are, fundamentally, can help management to get a grip on situations sooner. “Conflicts in the office can result from people of different generations and ideologies working together, or because they are lacking a strong leader to help set the example of what is acceptable,” she commented in a recent release. “The good news is that where there is conflict there are resolutions. There are always effective ways to handle situations as they arise.”

By phone, Wright explained that there are numerous reasons that political talk develops at work in the first place, as well as many potential benefits. “It can allow for interesting ideas to flow, and if you are someone who’s an advocate for an issue one way or the other, having dialogues with people in the workplace may generate ideas and new strategies.”

“It may also help you refine or retract ideas that you hold, and be a breeding ground for analysis, and the ability to really think analytically,” she said. “But you have to be very delicate. Everyone comes in with a different level of opinion and understanding, and that means potential conflicts.”

Even with less hot-button issues, Wright said, conflict can easily happen when there’s a lack of strong leadership to demonstrate how coworker communication should happen at the company, if we’re not careful. “And because politics involves so many different ideas, people can take things personally, and feel like you’re personally attacking them, or that your ideas are so different that you’re not a person they want to work with.”

According to Wright, such conflict can stem from an office culture that hasn’t been thoughtfully defined or explored. In layperson’s terms, that means knowing your employees, taking their differences and needs to heart, and structuring office strategy accordingly. “Strong leaders have to set boundaries, and be considerate of people’s feelings,” she said. “That includes limiting the kinds of political conversation. If we’re having a dialogue, make it an open dialogue; invite different views not as individual attacks, but discussion on a topic.”

It’s only right that management get the ball rolling on providing spaces and starting points for these conversations, too, Wright said. “Listening really helps when you’re negotiating or discussing anything, and providing ways for employees to communicate gives you that opportunity. Get together, and have someone from management there to hear what they’re saying.”

“It could be based in a space on certain topics, or online, or even start with an anonymous HR box,” she said. “HR and management both have to be really engaged to keep people coming to the table in a productive way. We have to really look at it from a perspective of open-mindedness and active communication, and if we can do that, we’ll be okay.”

Plotting an individual course

Of course, management can’t be there to set the tone whenever a die-hard Bernie/Hillary/Trump/Christie/Graham fan tries to plant their body and ideas between you and the coffee-maker. Nor will ignoring coworkers’ attempts to engage do anything more than make temperatures in the hallway start to rise.

Last fall, Harvard Business Review laid out some key considerations for managing your own political position at the office (or lack thereof) among coworkers you might see every day. Liane Davey, author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done, told the Review that it's important to remember how closely people tend to guard their stances before you try to engage. “No matter how much others try to influence us, we’re not likely to move our positions—if anything, we’re likely to retrench,” she said.

But there can certainly be benefits to starting those tricky discussions anyway, Davey said, as long as you weigh the consequences first. “You usually get a sense of people’s leanings. If you wade into an issue that’s highly [divisive], you risk souring a relationship, [but] it may be worth it to you,” she said. “Our world would be a less progressive place if there weren’t brave souls to push these issues forward.”

If you realize you’re unlikely to change minds outright, then finding common ground, visibly keeping your cool, and giving people the benefit of the doubt can be your primary areas of focus. As the Review pointed out, asking questions and being respectful are vital ways to maintain calm, productive conversations when they happen—and to remind coworkers, first and foremost, why you value your relationship with them outside of politics, including the work that brought you together.

According to Phil Johnson, CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing, keeping those priorities clear is the only way to actually get something out of political conflicts at the office, one way or the other.

In an article for Ad Age last year, he emphasized that placing a high value on coworking relationships should be a company prerogative in facing politics and in general. “As an agency, rule number one is to respect others and create an environment where people feel free to express their opinions and disagree with each other.”

“[As] a boss, I try my damnedest to keep my political opinions to myself so that I don't make anyone feel uncomfortable,” he continued. “When I do hear someone expressing a point of view that I disagree with, I commend them for taking a stand and look for some common ground… My personal guideline: Never argue and always look for a thread of agreement. When the chasm is too wide you can always say ‘I see things differently but I'm really interested in how you think.’”

But knowing where to draw the line, and how to do so politely, is a necessity, experts seem to agree. Politically charged interactions have been known to impact productivity, whether by eating up time or killing the mood. Whether you’re an employee or management, you can always point to the fact that your primary obligation in being there is to work, and to allow others to do the same.

Joseph Sherman, a marketing specialist at Vimtag Technology, told the Review that he finally had to speak in these terms when a coworker, referred to as “Ryan,” took free expression of ideas to a problematic point. After having listened to Ryan’s impassioned stance twice and suggested community involvement, “The third time, I said, ‘Ryan, you keep talking about corrupt politicians who steal government money, but we are on company time, so by not working we are stealing time.’”

Something which, according to research, most employees would agree they don’t want to do.

Survey says: people are engaged, and evolving, with politics

The first few months of 2017 have been politically taxing ones for workers and pollsters alike, but recent surveys have suggested that both are bouncing back. According to Gallup research released April 25, employee engagement with their work saw some dips before the election, and among Democrats following it, but are bringing their focus back on track without leaving politics behind. “The impact of the election on workplace engagement, while significant, was short-lived,” Gallup reported. “Following President Donald Trump's inauguration on Jan. 20, Democrats' workplace engagement returned to 35%, slightly above pre-election levels.”

However, management shouldn’t allow good news to make the get complacent, Gallup noted. Rather, Democrats’ dip in workplace engagement “highlights the need for business leaders and managers to increase their efforts to make sure employees feel connected to the teams they work on—particularly during periods of increased social tension,” it concluded.

According to its research, Gallup also found that employees don’t even need special venues or frameworks for political support, necessarily; many even agree that politics have cooled off, or remained chill. Its feedback from surveyed employees suggested, rather, that getting frequent check-ins from managers to collaborate on goals and show human caring would do a lot for the workplace experience.

Throughout the day, that extra, genuine touch of kindness can smooth out many kinds of workplace interactions, after all—perhaps because, as Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.’”

Or maybe just because everyone, regardless of political party, has a bad day sometimes.

Illustrations by Tin Nguyen

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