Well, it’s finally election day here in the U.S. It’s certainly been a long road to get here, and no matter what the outcome, the next few days are likely to be pretty emotional for many employees. As our media outlets have grown increasingly sensationalistic, and the two parties more and more polarized and obstinate, the disagreement and animosity have spilled over and we’re now hearing of many tense political conversations at work. In an age when many companies claim to be focused on striving for inclusion, how do people’s party affiliations factor into the equation?
The old recommendation to never discuss politics or religion in ‘polite’ conversation has become untenable amidst a 24-hour news cycle that thrives off of these two supposedly taboo topics. Things have gotten so out of hand that it’s even impacting people’s health and wellbeing. As far back as September of 2019, a survey found that 40% of respondents felt that politics were a source of stress in their lives. Approximately 20% reported losing sleep over it, and roughly the same number noted that politics exacted an emotional toll on them. The numbers are undoubtedly higher now, on the day of the election, and after such extraordinary circumstances in the lead-up. How do you manage all of this as an employer?
Pros and cons of allowing political discussions in the workplace
The overwhelming advice to employees across the board is to simply avoid having political conversations at work at all. Many workers seem to agree. During the also extremely polarized 2016 election season, 79% of survey respondents noted that coworkers are the people they would be least likely to discuss politics with, beating out even neighbors and complete strangers. The logic behind this is difficult to dispute; many people don’t know their colleagues very well, and yet they have to see and collaborate with them every day. If they get into any particularly heated political conversations at work, it can impact both their prospects with that employer, as well as the general office environment due to the increased tension.
On the one hand, you run the risk of employees fighting to the point of not being able to work productively together, and potentially even coming to blows, while on the other hand, completely ignoring the fact that employees are stressed and anxious isn’t a stellar option either. By forbidding employees from expressing themselves or voicing their concerns, they have no choice but to bottle up their anxiety which leads to distraction and disengagement. While in many ways this conundrum requires choosing the lesser of two evils, there are some strategies you can pursue to find some middle ground.
Strategies for enabling healthy dialogue
There are a number of alternatives to stifling and ignoring people’s beliefs without inviting full-on battles into your office. While encouraging political conversations at work outright is likely inadvisable in efforts to prevent anyone from feeling offended and/or victimized, it’s important to at least acknowledge that a big national event is underway. Pretending it’s not happening isn’t going to lead to any sort of positive outcome. Consider the following steps to help support your employees through this charged time:
- Make it clear that the company understands that employees are under immense stress right now. As mentioned above, it’s important to lead with empathy during this time. The election is undoubtedly impacting your employees, so to pretend otherwise is simply tone-deaf. Ensure your managers are being mindful of the stress that their direct reports may be under, and acknowledge that they might not be at their best.
- Don’t ban political speech that otherwise complies with your larger behavioral requirements. Political conversations are going to come up; it’s simply a fact of the current day and age. Banning them and making them punishable simply makes employees feel like they can’t bring their whole selves to work, and sets unreasonable restrictions on employee interactions. Stress that your standard expectations of respect, professionalism, etc. remain in place, but don’t add to employees’ anxieties by threatening termination if they slip and mention something about this huge issue that is undoubtedly on their minds.
- Take a stand against hate as a company. The political rhetoric in this country has reached a fever pitch, but as a company you can still take a stand against hate and in favor of acceptance without it being political. Make sure your employees know you’ll support them no matter which candidate they choose, and offer them security during this highly unstable year.
As has long been the case, political discussions in the workplace are often better when just avoided, but you can still take steps to ensure your employees feel safe and supported. If you’re looking for ways to keep your employees connected during this decentralized time, consider checking out Workrowd. We’ve got solutions for diversity, equity, and inclusion, professional development, social impact, and more. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.