Is Politics Ruining Your Workplace Culture?

The high-stakes midterm elections are tomorrow, and that seems to be all anyone can talk about–on the airwaves, at the dinner table and, yes, at the office water cooler. Talking about politics at work, however, can also have some high-stakes consequences–if the dialogue isn’t effectively managed.

A new survey by Randstad U.S. found that political conversations at work are common, but so are some unfortunate outcomes. According to the research, 49 percent of surveyed employees enjoy talking about politics at work, and 65 percent say they’re comfortable doing so–however, 55 percent report witnessing heated political discussions, with nearly 40 percent of respondents engaging in such discourse themselves. Seventy-two percent say such discussions have caused them stress, and 44 percent say they’ve impacted their productivity.

Steve Paskoff, owner and CEO of ELI, Inc.–which provides workplace training focused on civil behavior–notes that “discussions about politics have always been in our workplaces, but what’s different now is the issue of intensity. The intensity of these discussions reflects the intensity of the division in the country.”

Stark nationwide divides have certainly bled into the workplace–and employees’ working relationships.

Randstad found that half of respondents say their thoughts about co-workers have changed after finding out their political beliefs, while nearly 40 percent of employees think they have experienced bias at work because of their political beliefs. Forty-seven percent hide their own political beliefs to fit in with senior leaders, and 46 percent have unfollowed colleagues on social media because of their political views.

Paskoff, a former EEOC trial attorney, says organizations are newly challenged by social media, which he says can often be the jumping-off point for how workers discover one another’s political views.

Workplace political talk doesn’t just impact day-to-day interactions but can spell big trouble for retention. The survey found that 35 percent of employees would leave their job if their direct managers were vocal about political opinions that differed from their own, while nearly 40 percent would take a pay cut to move to a company with social stances aligned with their own.

So how can organizations get a handle on this potentially volatile issue? Paskoff says it all comes down to culture.

“HR leaders and business leaders have to have values in place, standards in place, that help people see their behavior in terms of how it affects the work,” he says. “Our organizational culture drives how people behave.”

Through training, policies and modeling by leaders, he says, employees should be shown that they essentially are “citizens” of the organization–just like they are citizens of their respective cities or states, a status that comes with certain responsibilities. “We are all citizens of an organization who should share a common desire for the best results for the organization–and disruptive political behavior can interfere with teamwork, cooperation, focus and productivity.”

Paskoff advises organizations to communicate to employees a few basic common-sense approaches to building a culture of civil communication, including:

  • Values drive behavior; behavior drives results.
  • We build culture by acting–or not acting.
  • If you won’t listen to others, why should they listen to you?
  • We speak up for others and ourselves.
  • We care about what you say and do–not what you think.
  • If you’re unsure if you should say or write something–don’t. “We can all have differences of political opinions,” he says, “but that shouldn’t mean there are differences in how we treat one another because we should all be working for the best results for the organization.”
  • When employees uphold such principles, Paskoff says, they should be rewarded–and there should be consequences for those who don’t.
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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected]