How HR Should Handle Politics at Work

Learn how companies can craft a policy about discussing politics at work — both in-person and online.

employees talking
Hear from 2 company leaders and HR experts about approaching politics in the workplace

With less than a month before a divisive United States presidential election disrupted by a global pandemic, it’s difficult to avoid politics popping up in the workplace.

From the prospect of virtual debates to news about mail-in ballots, there’s plenty of fodder for employees to engage in hours of political discourse and debate with their colleagues. But while listening to different opinions is healthy and can prompt people to form new perspectives, politics at work can also be disruptive.

A Society for Human Resource Management poll found that 42% of employees have had a “political disagreement” at work — while calls to the SHRM HR Knowledge Center about dealing with political talk at work nearly tripled, rising to 900 last year from just 310 in 2017.

To head this off, some companies have taken a drastic approach to politics in the workplace. Brian Armstrong, CEO of Silicon Valley-based cryptocurrency exchange and broker Coinbase, recently made waves when he told employees he won’t stand for politics at the office or for employees to champion social causes. Facebook and Google also enacted policies to deal with heated conversations on internal message boards.

“Most people that I know have a ‘no discussing politics at work’ policy to make it easy,” said Tamara Rasberry, Director of HR and Operations for the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. “But I think that’s unrealistic. Politics are a part of our life, and I’m not a fan of making policies that people aren’t going to be able to follow. It’s unrealistic for there not to be conversations about politics among a group of adults.”

Instead, in these unprecedented times — and in general — it’s best for HR to prepare and be proactive when it comes to handling the inevitable politics at work, she said.

A respectful communications policy

Rasberry says it’s not unusual for problems to emerge in the workplace due to employees supporting and voicing different political opinions. On one online HR message board she’s a member of, a colleague recently posted that 2 employees at her company got into a fist fight following the last presidential debate.

Develop firm policies about which type of behaviors that relate to politics you tolerate at work, which you don’t, and the repercussions. And then stick to them.

Employers “should get ahead of these types of things,” Rasberry said. Develop firm policies about which type of behaviors that relate to politics you tolerate at work, which you don’t, and the repercussions. And then stick to them.

One approach is to permit political conversations at work, but then cover politics in a work policy that deals with anti-harassment and discrimination. Rasberry would include discussing politics at work in a policy that addresses respectful communications. It’s a policy that would also include topics like religion and sexual orientation or gender.

The policy should specify what actions or behavior would warrant discipline, and detail what the consequences will be if the policy is broken. For example, a screaming match about the latest presidential debate could result in a write-up. With this type of write-up, “You’re on notice that this type of behavior can’t happen again,” Rasberry said. A physical fight, however, might warrant immediate termination.

Employees at Rasberry’s workplace also undergo a respectful communications training online to help them understand how to keep conversations in the workplace — both work-related and personal — civil.

Speaking out

Historically, most companies have been apolitical, said Charlie Gray, Founder and President of HR consulting firm Gray Scalable. Many businesses have supported employees’ political or social involvement, but not taken a side as a company.

Gray, however, believes that times have changed — especially under the current administration. There are many more companies these days now supporting their employees’ activism and efforts to enact change. For example, Gray’s company gave its employees time off to participate in Black Lives Matter protests this summer. Other companies are supporting employees who are helping to register voters for the upcoming election.

“I think the rules have changed dramatically,” Gray said. “Leaders now have an obligation to speak out about the political state of the country. And if leaders are speaking out, you can’t tell employees to not talk about what they believe in.”

“I think the rules have changed dramatically,” Gray said. “Leaders now have an obligation to speak out about the political state of the country.”

Still, there’s a time and place for politics at work. Gray says employees should be able to respectfully voice their political opinions, but he advises his clients not to discuss politics in certain situations, such as while they’re interviewing job candidates. This is similar to not mentioning a candidate’s age during a job interview.

Online vs. in person

Rasberry says that to some extent the pandemic has lessened the amount of political chatter among coworkers who are working remotely.

“Most people don’t jump on Zoom calls and talk politics because they don’t want to be on Zoom for very long,” she said.

Sometimes though, politics will creep into online interactions. An employee might choose a Zoom background that features a particular candidate or political party. Or political conversations could come up on collaborative platforms such as Slack.

In many ways, online discussions about politics can be easier to handle. It can be simpler to walk away from an online conversation as opposed to one that’s in person, helping employees to potentially avoid a confrontation. “You don’t have to get involved in those discussions if you don’t want to,” Rasberry said.

Companies crafting a policy about politics at work should do so considering both in-person and online interactions. For many businesses, remote or hybrid work will likely continue through the end of the year, and possibly even into 2021.

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