Should You Discuss Politics in the Workplace? 3 Tips for Human Resources
Should you talk about politics in the workplace? HR professionals will likely tell you from experience that the simple answer is “no.” The fallout from uncontrolled political conversation begins with broken coworker relationships and can even result in allegations of discrimination or harassment.
Some subjects should be avoided in the workplace. While they can open up the room to a healthy debate, different views and opinions can also lead to unhealthy arguments and disagreements. With this being said, there shouldn’t necessarily be a blanket ban on discussing subjects that can evoke emotions.
HR’s strategic toolbox for controlling talking about politics ranges between two extremes: monitoring employees and actively censoring political speech, or giving employees free rein and handling the fallout on a case-by-case basis. While both techniques will provide some level of control, one does it at the expense of employee autonomy, and the other at the expense of workplace harmony.
Below, we’ll review whether discussing politics is a good idea, how to handle political harassment, and how to avoid politics at work without being overly restrictive. While you’re busy handling these conversations, the last thing you want to worry about is repetitive tasks that get in the way. Learn how BambooHR can help free up your time so you can focus on what matters most.
What Are the Cons of a Politics-at-Work Ban?
Talking politics in the workplace might seem like a simple issue to tackle. But the logistical headaches start with defining political speech and only continue from there, making one-sided enforcement impractical and frustrating.
While the First Amendment protects employees’ right to political speech, it doesn’t supersede private businesses’ right to enforce policies covering employee behaviors. With few exceptions, political speech and its aftermath fall in the category of employee behavior.
However, HR shoulders the burden of defining political speech and pairing offenses with consequences without any kind of universal yardstick. And even if such a yardstick existed, there might not be one small enough to catch political damage before it happens. That’s because the human brain is smart enough to catch the smallest detail and because biased thinking is hard to overcome.
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How Do Political Impressions and Personal Biases Affect Employees?
Long before employees make conscious declarations of their political leanings, their actions can send more subtle messages that solidify in the minds of their coworkers. We’re all susceptible to the power of personal bias, the lightning-fast shortcuts our brains develop to think efficiently. Without teaching employees to understand and account for their personal biases (both political and otherwise), it can be difficult for coworkers to develop the trust they need to work well together.
Biases are a natural part of the human thought process, an evolutionary presence to protect us from perceived immediate dangers: we see, we associate, and we run… or not. But the same mechanisms that identify physical dangers also lead us to make snap decisions about other people based on the smallest cues as the brain defends itself from anything that contradicts its core beliefs.
With this perspective in mind, how can HR monitor political speech? For instance, what happens if employees overhear colleagues joking about a hot-button political issue, or if someone sees an article, a headline, or even a website whose viewpoint they disagree with while discussing work with a coworker?
Much of what we call political leanings stem from core beliefs about what is right and what is wrong, morally speaking. Our response to attacks on these core views can be nearly as strong as the fear for personal safety caused by other forms of harassment.
Unconscious bias sends our brains into defense mode, labeling the offending word, sign, or person as “bad” without waiting for higher reasoning to make an informed decision. A person acting on bias alone isn’t interested in compromise or resolution—it’s fight or flight. Political positions bring an army to this fight, as it’s easier to stick with a position when thousands of people share the same opinion.
How Does Political Bias Play Out in the Workplace?
A 2022 SHRM survey found that 1 in 5 U.S. workers experienced poor treatment, and 13% say they've been bullied due to their views.
If employees don’t understand and recognize political bias, it can do a number on collaboration and culture among your teams. A single political impression can taint an employee’s coworker with the worst stereotypes of a political party, including attitudes about racial, class, and gender issues, all without the need for evidence or confirmation.
When your organization asks employees to trust and compromise with a coworker with differing views on a work issue, will they assume the best? Or will their political biases kick in and cause them to question their coworkers’ motivation and competence?
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How HR Can Take a Proactive Approach to Politics in the Workplace
Keeping your workplace completely free of political interactions would require keeping personal interactions to a minimum. Such conditions rarely produce the level of connection with colleagues that employees need to stay engaged and mentally healthy.
While it’s impossible to have a completely politics-free workplace, there are proactive strategies to help your people trust each other and work together in spite of their differences. Below are three to begin with:
1. Mitigate the Effects of Bias
There’s no way to completely eradicate personal biases. But with the right structure and instruction, your employees can work together to counter the effects of biases in the following crucial areas:
- Hiring: If a single person handles the hiring process from job description to offer letter, that person’s biases will play a part in the final decision. Involving additional stakeholders throughout the hiring process, from reading resumes to conducting interviews, gives everyone a chance to come to a consensus and catch variances caused by biases.
- Performance Management: As with hiring, deciding performance criteria in advance and getting feedback from multiple decision makers helps mitigate arbitrary judgments involved in performance management. Recording performance data from self, peer, and manager evaluations can also provide employees with assurance that their fate isn’t in the hands of one person (while protecting your organization with evidence of a fair decision-making process).
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2. Teach Principles of Emotional Intelligence
Let’s be clear—having strong political views is not a sign of low emotional intelligence. But strong political views, especially in the workplace, can lead to inappropriate emotional responses without the right personal controls in place. If employees value talking politics at work more than avoiding workplace conflict, it’s a sign that there’s room to help them improve the social skills needed to become better teammates.
According to Daniel Goleman, the internationally-recognized psychologist who developed the concept, emotional intelligence consists of five pillars:
- Self-Awareness: The ability to understand emotions, including those that come from personal biases
- Self-Regulation: The ability to control emotional impulses and think before acting or responding
- Motivation: The willingness to forego immediate gratification in favor of a long-term goal
- Empathy: The ability to acknowledge others’ points of view without questioning their motivations or abilities
- Social Skills: The ability to maintain principles of emotional intelligence in a social setting while helping others do the same
Take time to explore concepts like empathy and motivation with managers and employees. This could range from a full Crucial Conversations workshop (like we’ve done here at BambooHR), or simply encouraging everyone to listen to someone they don’t agree with and understand their point of view.
3. Develop a Values-Based Culture
Review your company values. Do they encourage employees to focus on what matters most, develop emotional intelligence, and work well together?
For example, among the rest of our values, BambooHR has four that define our ideal collaborative culture:
- Be Open
- Assume the Best
- Do the Right Thing
- Lead from Where You Are
Building values and training your current and new employees about them helps stabilize your culture in the long term without sacrificing diversity or expression (or having employees default to shared political beliefs). As turnover happens over time, a values-based culture can stand on its own, without depending on any kind of political balance among employees.
Final Thoughts: Prevent Political Disagreements Ahead of Time
HR will always have to protect their employees and their organizations from bad behavior when talking politics in the workplace. But teaching employees principles to help them manage their perceptions and self-expression can help stop the damage before it starts.
You might not be able to offer a blanket ban on talking politics at work, but you can have policies in place which ban political harassment and bullying—which shouldn’t be tolerated in the workplace. Ultimately, your work environment should be a space where people feel secure and safe each day.
By highlighting the consequences of unacceptable behavior, and ensuring employees know their HR team are available if anyone feels they’re being bullied because of their views, you can deter your people from igniting heated political discussions at work.
We know that HR pros have a lot on their plate. At the end of the day, HR’s most important responsibility is focusing on their organization’s people, and tedious daily tasks can present roadblocks. Learn how BambooHR’s award-winning platform can help with your time-consuming tasks so you can focus on the important stuff.
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