How should HR handle political talk in the new workplace?

Experts say open and respectful conversation is key to maintaining civility.
By: | September 3, 2020 • 4 min read

From “Make America Great Again” hats to “Biden/Harris” yard signs, there’s no denying we are deep in the throes of a presidential election year. By all accounts, it’s shaping up to be one of the most contentious face-offs in American history. With emotions running high, employers must figure out how best to handle political talk in the workplace—virtual or in person.

“Absolutely, employers need to be concerned about it and preparing for how they are going to address it,” says Doug Kauffman, partner of Balch & Bingham LLP in Birmingham, Ala. “They are already having to deal with issues and it’s not going to get any better as we come to November.”

Advertisement

In terms of employee attitudes toward workplace political discussions, there’s a general lack of consensus as to what’s acceptable. According to a new survey by Menlo Park, Calif.-based specialized staffing firm Robert Half, 22% of professionals feel it’s appropriate to discuss politics with colleagues, while 26% believe it’s never OK. Just over half (53%) say it depends on the situation.

“Many people are willing to talk about politics if it can be done in a respectful fashion,’” says Paul McDonald, senior executive director of Robert Half. “We are seeing those conversations happen more often today because people are looking for things to discuss since they’ve been disconnected from one another due to the pandemic.”

Related: How Old Navy is getting workers involved in the election

In today’s deeply polarized political climate, how can an employer prevent employees’ polite conversations from escalating into arguments that could damage working relationships, create a toxic work environment and potentially turn off clients or customers? While some employers may be tempted to ban political discussions outright, Kauffman advises against doing so.

“If you say, ‘You can’t discuss politics in the workplace,’ you’re going to find that hard to enforce and it’s going to be difficult to single out politics from other personal things,” says Kauffman. “It could also be damaging from a public relations standpoint if the company is seen as trying to stifle people from expressing their personal views.”

Related: Are politics decreasing workplace diversity?

That said, Kauffman cautions employers not to fall for employee claims that the First Amendment guarantees them the right to discuss anything—including politics—in the workplace. The constitutional right to free speech applies only to government workplaces, he says, not to the private sector.

While a private company could legally discourage political talk, McDonald says, it’s far more advisable to provide basic guidance to prevent conversations from growing too contentious. He recommends employers provide workers with three tips for navigating political discussions with colleagues:

  • Tread lightly: If you choose to participate in a political conversation, keep it light and constructive. If the discussion becomes confrontational, move on to another subject.
  • Decline politely: If you are not comfortable sharing your political views, simply bow out of the conversation and let others know you prefer not to chime in.
  • Speak up: If a colleague says or does something that makes you uncomfortable, pull them aside and explain what’s bothering you. For more serious matters, consult your manager or HR.

With many people still working remotely, there are fewer opportunities to share idle chit-chat around the watercooler. However, much like social media often brings out a more argumentative, even rude temperament from people essentially “hiding behind a computer keyboard,” a similar phenomenon comes into play here.

“Sometimes, people are more brazen when typing things out because they don’t have to say it to the person’s face,” says Kauffman. “At some point, HR has to be ready to say, ‘That’s turned into unwelcome conduct and it’s just not appropriate for the workplace because it’s too divisive.’ ”

Providing a respectful pathway for discussing the election and other hot topics is key to developing a healthy modern workplace culture, says Ali Fazal, senior director for New York-based people management platform Hibob. He suggests creating discussion groups or viewing parties, not necessarily sanctioned by HR but “above board, so people are not doing them in secret.” HR should attend to monitor conversations and observe where conflicts arise.

According to Fazal, it’s too late to go back to the “emperor has no clothes, the workplace is sacred, we don’t talk about politics here” concept of working relationships. Today’s employees are more open about their political affiliation. That trend is likely to continue, as nearly one-third (32%) of employees ages 25 to 40 believe workplace conversations about politics are acceptable, compared to 13% of those ages 41 to 54 and 9% of those 55 and older, according to the Robert Half survey. That desire to discuss politics is likely to extend beyond election night, as employees are going to require opportunities to process the results.

Advertisement

“This election is very meaningful in determining what’s next for a lot of people and how our country and the world will shape and evolve,” he says. “You can expect a lot of people to be very disappointed by the outcome, so giving them the space to process that without it being viewed as unprofessional is going to be really important.”

Julie Cook Ramirez is a Rockford, Ill.-based journalist and copywriter covering all aspects of human resources. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.