Easy Etiquette: Punting political punditry

By Michael Redmond

BBRS Senior Manager, Human Resources Field Support

Election Day is months away, but emotions are already running high this political season. What does a manager do when tense, even abrasive political discussions enter the workplace?

An early warning: state and local laws regarding political activities vary, so check with your local labor department before you make bold decisions.

Political debates in the workplace can disrupt productivity. When these debates get heated, they can create tensions to anyone within earshot, and in some cases, can become hostile.

A CareerBuilder poll taken during the 2012 mid-term elections found that 42 percent of respondents avoid talking about politics at work. Another 44 percent said they talked about it, but shut down the conversation when it got heated, and 14 percent said they engaged in lively political debates at work.

According to a Fierce Inc. survey in 2012, 78 percent of respondents said political discussions in the workplace cause coworker tension. Of those, 27 percent said political conversations temporarily harm or permanently damage work relationships.

As an employer, you have an expectation that your employees are being productive, and not arguing over the points of the latest presidential debate during a project meeting.

While you don’t want to – and legally, can’t – stifle such discussions, you also have a responsibility to provide a safe, respectful workplace. Heated political clashes open opportunities for hostile work environments, as well as discrimination or harassment claims.

So what can you do to support your employees while maintaining workplace serenity? Here are some ideas:

  • Ensure all employees are aware of company policy regarding political activities, displays and discussions. This may include restrictions to political clothing or using office equipment in support of a candidate. If you don’t have a policy in your employee manual or ethics guidelines, consider adding them in the next updates.
  • Also, remind employees of social media policies, if you have them.
  • Let employees know they are welcome to their opinions, but personal discussions – whether it’s water cooler gossip or political debates – will not be allowed to impede on work responsibilities.
  • Remind staff and management that harassment, discrimination and hostile environments will not be tolerated.
  • If necessary, HR should meet separately with feuding employees. Let them know they need to keep political battles out of the workplace.
  • As a manager or someone in HR, it’s important for you to enforce these policies across the board. Do not set a policy but enforce it only against members of one political affiliation.
  • Provide training to management on recognizing the signs of escalating debates that could quickly lead to inappropriate arguments.
  • Remind managers they should not evaluate staff based on their political viewpoints.

Michael Redmond has more than 30 years of HR, employee and labor relations, and training experience. He develops and provides anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training to parent company Bristol Bay Native Corporation and its subsidiaries. 


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