by Shayne Thomas
05 Nov 2020
The Delicate Matter of Talking About Politics at Work
It’s bound to happen, so be sure to set the right rules of engagement
Unless you’ve put yourself on a media detox over, say, the last four years, it’s highly likely that the drama, stress, and agony of the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election has been on your radar in some way, shape, or form. And as expected, this election has proven to be every bit as unnerving as we all anticipated it to be. In fact, as I’m writing this, the jury’s still out (too soon?) on who will be the victor in what has surprisingly become—contrary to the guidance of pretty much every poll imaginable—a neck-and-neck race to the finish line.
That being said, that’s about as political as I’m going to get here. Knowing just how high tensions are around this election, I’ve learned that it’s often a good idea to keep my personal beliefs to myself in a professional environment. There’s no need to throw fuel on a fire that’s already burning out of control. No one has the time for that.
But even more importantly, talking about politics and religion at work, generally speaking, is essentially the equivalent of walking a tightrope suspended hundreds of feet in the air. It’s simply not advised. And if left to escalate among a group of highly passionate and deeply partisan employees, such discussions can quickly create a hostile work environment, not only for those directly involved but also for those within earshot.
So even though you might be chomping at the bit to weigh in on what is weighing on the minds of 160+ million voting Americans with your colleagues, thinks twice before you do.
Workplace relationships may lead to a false sense of security
We spend a lot of our time at work these days. If you really love what you do, there’s a good chance you’ve occasionally sipped from your company’s “Koolaid”—which is a beautiful thing because that means you’ve successfully created a positive link between your company’s values and your own beliefs and values systems. (Feels like we should break into Kum-bay-yah...)
Even more, because we spend so much time at work, we also end up spending a lot of time with our coworkers—sometimes even more than the people we live with—who often become close friends, in and out of the office. And when you couple that with a general vibing with a company’s culture and values, it becomes easy to assume a false sense of security.
These strong ties to your workplace and your colleagues can make it seem as though everyone’s “on the same page” (read: “everyone agrees with you”). But if recent U.S. elections have taught us anything, it’s that the country is very divided; there’s a 50/50 chance that some of your nearest and dearest coworkers don’t see eye-to-eye with you on a number of issues. And it can damage work relationships when that reality gets thrown into the spotlight.
This is just one reason why staying away from polarizing topics in the workplace is a good idea, even if you think your opinion on certain issues may be met with smiles and nods. However, for all you know, some people who think differently than you may simply smile and nod to avoid conflict. Feigning a “group think” mentality can merely be a method of survival for many.
Remember, the workplace is where we all go to do our jobs. If you want to get into a heated debate around your preferred candidates or the issues that you’re most passionate about, do it when you’re off-the-clock and outside of the office out of respect for the other people around you. After all, the last thing anyone wants is for an argument over politics to create unnecessary tension that takes your or your team’s focus away from doing what you’re paid to do: work.
Discussing politics at work is virtually unavoidable
As much as I can share conventional wisdom with you around this, the truth is that talking about politics in the workplace is bound to pop up from time to time. It’s hard for it not to when elections in the U.S. tend to be pop culture spectacles.
As an HR leader, your knee-jerk reaction may be to issue a blanket policy around “no talking about politics at work,” because that seems like the safest and most reasonable way to keep things from escalating to near-volcanic levels. But that could be hard to enforce and ultimately make you feel like the “politics police,” which may very well go against your company’s culture.
Instead, take a note fro the CEO of Envoy Global, Richard Burke’s playbook:
“It’s important that HR emphasizes the organization’s core principles and, in doing so, reiterates that the work environment should be a place of mutual respect–where employees feel valued and appreciated by their employer and co-workers.”
In other words, be sure to create a workplace where the free exchange of ideas can be had in respectful, thoughtful, and conscious ways. You should obviously set some guardrails around this—because again, this is the workplace. But instead of policing the situation, foster a culture that inhibits conflict before it ever happens. Here are three approaches to consider:
1. Help employees become aware of their unconscious bias
We’ve talked about unconscious bias a lot in the context of recruitment and hiring. But it doesn’t stop there. The funny thing about unconscious bias is that it is, well, unconscious; it can pop up when you least expect it, whether you even realize it’s happening or not. Helping employees learn to become more aware of their own viewpoints (read: not the viewpoints of the company), privilege, and potential for bias can give them the tools to “check” themselves before engaging in discussions that could easily go down a dangerous political rabbit hole for all.
2. Teach emotional intelligence
Similarly, we’ve discussed at length the importance of teaching and developing soft skills across all levels of an organization. This has only grown in importance as more employees are now working remotely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to trusted psychologist Daniel Goleman, emotional intelligence can be broken down into five key pillars:
Understanding your own emotions, even those coming from personal biases.
Controlling emotional impulses (i.e. think before acting or responding).
Forgoing immediate gratification in lieu of focusing on long-term goals.
Acknowledging different viewpoints without questioning motivations or abilities.
- Social Skills
Being a role model for emotional intelligence that others can follow.
For all intents and purposes, teaching emotional intelligence is basically just another way of teaching employees how to communicate effectively with each other, based on the norms set by your company’s culture, values, and expectations. And while it may seem like a no-brainer for many, today’s shift towards primarily digital-first work communications has made it important for employees to re-learn or adapt their emotional intelligence aptitude to virtual settings.
3. Create safe spaces
Again, during these tense and often highly charged times, HR leaders need to be seen by employees as de facto listeners, supporters, and trusted coaches. If someone is having an issue with other employees who just can’t keep their opinions to themselves, it’s important to position the HR team as a “safe space” where employees can go if they have any concerns. They shouldn’t feel like they’re being “tattletales” or aiming to get someone else in trouble. But they also shouldn’t have to put themselves in the awkward situation of telling another coworker that his or her opinions are rubbing them the wrong way or making them feel uncomfortable. That could backfire in a big way. HR leaders have the skills to deal with situations like this gently. Be the “safe space” that your employees need from you during these crazy times.
When in doubt, advocate for leaving politics at home
Now that you’ve got a few tips to help employees communicate more effectively and empathetically during a time when political stakes—and emotions—are incredibly high, it still goes without saying that politics should not be brought into the workplace. While there are certainly cohesive teams out there that truly see eye-to-eye, you never know when someone is just being nice by smiling, nodding, and not choosing to engage. Politics, like religion, is one of those taboo subjects you should bring up around the dinner table with family, so why would you want to set off that wildfire at work? Whatever you choose to do, underscore that treating each with respect is the absolute priority. While this is a solid rule-of-thumb when it comes to conversations about politics, it’s also a best practice for navigating through tough decision-making and other work-related challenges that employees will inevitably face.
To learn more about how Cornerstone Learning can help skill up your employees with critical emotional intelligence-based training, reach out to our team today!