Conflict | 9 MIN READ

The Pros and Cons of Political Expression in the Workplace

Written by Jennifer Curry

When it comes to political expression in the workplace, most people say politics has no room in the workplace. But, let’s be realistic. Political talk is going to happen if it isn’t already. Glassdoor reports, “Over half of employees (57%) have discussed politics at work.” And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing – if you know how to create a neutral, safe environment for your team. Learning how to manage political expression in the workplace can lead to fewer disputes and better workplace chemistry. 

The Pros of Political Expression in the Workplace

When it comes to political expression in the workplace, people tend to list the cons first. However, there are pros. For example, diversity of thought is beneficial to companies. American Express claims, “Diverse organizations generate higher revenues, they are more innovative and they see lower rates of turnover than their less diverse competitors. […] If business leaders want to leverage the full financial benefits of creating diverse organizations, they also need to seek out diversity of thought.”

If you tend to hire people who think similarly or fit the company culture, you may miss out on valuable insights from others who think differently. Moreover, studies have found teams that share the same political ideologies tend to be more toxic than those teams that are ideologically balanced. Having a team composed of different political ideologies will help more than it will hurt.

The Cons of Political Expression in the Workplace

When it comes to the cons of political expression in the workplace, at the top of the list is conflict. Unfortunately, there is a reason for this fear. According to HR Daily Advisor, “64% say that discussions surrounding politics in the workplace have gotten more heated than 5-10 years ago. […] Over half of participants surveyed (55%) have witnessed heated political discussions or arguments at work, and over a third (38%) have been involved in them.”

When political discussions turn into heated debates, your business will suffer. An Employer Report survey found, “47% of employees reported that debate surrounding the 2020 elections is impacting their ability to get work done. About 33% of the employees surveyed said they now spend more time getting political news while at work. Perhaps more worrisome, 36% of those surveyed said it has led them to avoid talking to or working with a co-worker because of his or her political views.”

These numbers reveal that political expression in the workplace can cause productivity issues and hinder workplace chemistry. Moreover, politics is muddied when those involved shift from sharing their opinions to harassing others. 

To be honest, politics is messy – especially today. As a result of the hostility generally associated with politics, many companies are putting an end to political expression in the workplace. In 2019, Google banned political discussion on internal mailing lists for this reason. CNBC points out, “The company has traditionally fostered a culture of free speech and debate inside the company, with employees often getting into heated conversations about political and social issues.” Today’s political climate forced Google to go in a new direction.

How to Make Political Expression in the Workplace Work 

It’s easy to see why some companies are trying to put an end to political expression in the workplace, but since the majority of employees are discussing politics, this seems impractical. Instead, you want your workplace to feel like Switzerland – a neutral territory. Employees should feel safe, regardless of their political leanings, and differences of opinions should not only be tolerated but encouraged.

Ultimately, as manager, it is up to you to foster this type of environment. Emily Gregory, a vice president at VitalSmarts, the leadership training company, says, “It isn’t your job to teach your team members about politics, but it is your job to teach them how to talk about tough issues.” As manager, treat politics the same way you would any other tough issue, including cultural issues, racial matters, gender inequality, and sexual orientation.  

Here are some general guidelines to creating an environment where all of your employees feel respected.

  • Create a values statement. If you have a clear values statement, it is much easier to handle political disputes. Simply remind employees what your company values, such as respect and teamwork, when disagreements occur.

  • Host training. Have all employees take a sensitivity training course. These courses cover a variety of sensitive topics, including politics, and explain the dos and don’ts for the workplace. You may also want to consider soft skills training to help employees learn empathy.

  • Be consistent. Political expression in the workplace may include clothing and desk décor – unless you have a rule against it. If you do have a general rule, you must stay consistent. For example, you can’t tell one employee she can’t wear a button with a political slogan on it but allow another employee to wear a shirt supporting a candidate on Election Day.

  • Stay focused on your mission. Remind employees the reason they are at work is to work towards your mission – not to debate politics. For example, Coinbase sticks to this rule: “We don’t advocate for any particular causes or candidates internally that are unrelated to our mission, because it is a distraction from our mission. Even if we all agree something is a problem, we may not all agree on the solution.” 

  • Establish rules for speech. When talking about politics in the workplace, establish rules for speech, such as no political jokes, jabs, or criticisms about personal characteristics. Jackson Lewis explains, “If they observe employees criticize a political candidate based upon their own protected characteristics, workers in protected categories may feel alienated or isolated. For instance, discussions about how a candidate’s age might affect his or her ability to operate as President could be perceived as age-based discrimination.”

  • Distinguish between respectful discussion, discrimination, and harassment. One of the major concerns of political expression in the workplace is harassment. What begins as a simple political discussion can spin out of control. Therefore, employees need to understand what defines harassment. For instance, an employee who keeps trying to get a coworker to “see his point of view” by putting pamphlets on his coworker’s desk may be perceived as harassing the coworker. In another case, criticizing a politician because she is female may make female employees feel discriminated against. 

  • Examine motives. Advise your employees to examine their motives when it comes to discussing or expressing politics in the workplace. Are they trying to make friends or antagonize? Are they genuinely concerned about how an issue affects them or others in the workplace? Ask them to consider if the topic matters for the here and now. For instance, “Is arguing your point at this moment worth more than having a healthy work relationship with your colleague?”

  • Focus on what unites not divides. Look for every opportunity to get your employees to focus on what unites them rather than what divides them. In this case, you can always point out they are all focused on your company’s goals, mission, and values.

  • Don’t assume. One study found, “Sixty percent (60%) of employees are unsure if their political beliefs align with those of their coworkers.” However, the echo chambers our employees live in may make them falsely assume their coworkers share their beliefs. Remind them that this is not the case. 

  • Avoid one dominant political opinion. Along with the previous suggestion, it is important to avoid one dominant political opinion. If employees assume all or most employees share the same political beliefs, they are most likely mistaken and leaving others feeling isolated. Clutch explains, “When political discussion occurs at work among mostly like-minded employees, a dominant opinion can form that creates a standard employees feel pressured to adhere to. Employees who don’t share the workplace's standard political views may feel uncomfortable.” One dominant political opinion takes away from the diversity of thought. Moreover, it is costly. A recent Randstad survey found, “One-third of employees have left a job due to differences in political affiliation with senior leaders who vocalised their views and 37% would leave their jobs if their CEO publicly promoted political views different from their own.”

Important Reminders for Managers

Managing a team with differing political ideologies is complicated; however, as the captain of the ship, you determine whether you wreck or sail. That’s why you need to stick to the guidelines you give your employees and model the kind of behavior you desire. 

  • Keep your political opinions to yourself. The best thing you can do as a manager when it comes to political expression in the workplace is keep your mouth shut. Of everyone in the company, you are the one who needs to keep your opinions to yourself the most. When managers begin to proactively voice their political beliefs, it fractures the employee-manager relationship and creates unnecessary division. Employees with differing opinions may feel more hesitant to share their views or feel like you favor those whose opinions you share. Plus, as the head of the company, your opinions may be associated with the company (such as Levi Strauss taking a side on gun control). This can turn into a problem for your employees. As Clutch explains, “When employees don't agree with political issues that their company leaders choose to publicly support, they make a choice between following their political values and sacrificing their income and way of life.” 

  • Model inclusivity. Your employees will watch and learn from you. So, make a point to model inclusivity whenever you can, such as during your daily standup meeting and when you met privately. Show respect and empathy for those with differing opinions. 

  • Be aware. The best managers are those who have their finger on the pulse of their company. They are aware of what is going on because they pay attention. If you monitor the environment and sense a shift in workplace chemistry, you can make attempts to turn things around before you have a major problem on your hands. 

  • Manage conflict. Ideally, you can avoid discipline tactics by stopping potential conflicts, such as redirecting conversations that start to become heated or speaking up when someone makes a political joke that may be attributed to protected characteristics. However, even with the best intentions, conflicts will arise. In these cases, you are the one responsible for conflict management. If you reach this point, read Team Members Not Getting Along? This is How to Turn Things Around.

Last updated on March 16, 2021

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