Politics in the Workplace: Policies and Preventative Measures
Key Points about HR’s role in political discussions:
- Increased polarization has made this year’s presidential race more tense than past elections.
- As an HR leader, you may need to help your workplace navigate this political atmosphere.
- Policies and preventative measures can help you create a respectful environment and reduce conflict whether it’s an election year or not.
Election day is just over a week away, and it’s one of the most polarizing presidential races yet.
Politics in the workplace have always had the power to bring out strong emotions. According to SHRM’s survey, about 42% of employees have experienced political disagreements at work. If you’re working remotely, these discussions may not be as common as before. But they can still arise. And online platforms can make it even easier to discuss controversial topics.
In our politically-charged times, many employees expect HR to set guidelines and mediate conflict. This isn’t an easy role to assume, but policies and preventative measures can help you navigate the election cycle and create a harassment-free workplace.
Consider a General Policy for Political Speech and Expression
Everyone has their own opinions and everyone deserves to have those opinions respected. But if they lead to harassment or contradict your organization’s values, you may need to take action.
60% of employees think that discussing politics at work is unacceptable. However, many employees still do it. During an election year especially, it’s almost inevitable for politics to become a topic of conversation. Some organizations respond by implementing policies that ban political discussions altogether. However, these policies are hard to enforce and can lower morale.
Policies that address concrete political action or materials can be helpful, though. For example, you might prohibit employees from displaying or distributing political materials. Or you might restrict certain political activities or dress codes. If your workforce is remote, video call backgrounds may be more pressing.
Please note that voting is an acceptable political activity and supported by most states with a legal requirement. 30 states, including California, require you to give your employees time off to vote. To avoid legal issues, your policy must account for these state-based mandates. It must also be consistent and non-discriminatory.
Other policies present more extensive guidelines for employee political activity in the workplace. For example, the College of Western Idaho details the distribution of campaign materials.
Download our example political activity policy template to prevent political conflict before and after the election:
Ensure Compliance with Federal and State Legislation
If you decide to create a policy, take note of applicable legislation. The First Amendment, for example, typically does not extend to private businesses. Private businesses can enforce their own rules for political speech and expression.
On the flip side, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects some workers. They can discuss workplace conditions and other covered topics (which may include politics). Several states also protect employee involvement in political activities and expression. California, for instance, prohibits discrimination and retaliation against employees for political activities. Be sure to check all the related legislation to ensure your policy stays compliant.
Evaluate Political Social Media Posts
With employees working remotely, many political discussions have moved online. On their personal social media accounts, employees have the right to speak their mind and voice their political views. However, that doesn’t mean there are no consequences.
If you see a questionable social media post, take a step back before taking any kind of disciplinary action. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Does the post violate anti-harassment or other company policies?
- Does it share confidential or private business-related information?
- Is the speech protected under Federal or state legislation? How about the NLRA, the Whistleblower Protection Act, or any other guidance?
Only take action if you can clearly answer the above questions. Even then, proceed carefully and contact your legal advisor for additional guidance.
Implement Preventative Measures for Political Discussions
If a sweeping policy won’t work for your organization, try other preventative measures. The following actions can help your workplace respectfully discuss politics:
Teach emotional intelligence
When discussing politics in the workplace, it can be easy to speak without thinking. People with high emotional intelligence are able to step back from their emotions. They’re more likely to think before they say or do something that could hurt someone else.
For this reason, developing your employees’ emotional intelligence can help you avoid conflict. As a bonus, employees with high emotional intelligence also outperform their peers. Key pillars of emotional intelligence include:
- Emotional self-awareness (understanding why you feel the way you do)
- Self-management (being able to control your own emotions)
- Social awareness and empathy (understanding how someone else feels)
- Relationship management (building teamwork, teaching conflict resolution, and leading by example)
Various training programs and workshops can help you grow your employees’ emotional intelligence. The following exercises can also help:
- Group discussions after reading books about emotional intelligence
- Team-building activities that focus on building empathy
- Active listening activities to promote social awareness
Shift the conversation
Even with emotional intelligence training, political discussions may spring up and become heated. Yet as easily as a conversation can turn to politics, it can just as easily shift to another subject. If you sense a discussion headed towards dangerous waters, try to steer it elsewhere. “Safe” topics include:
- Recent movies or tv shows you watched
- Plans for upcoming holidays
If shifting the conversation doesn’t work, encourage your employees to leave it altogether. A statement as simple as, “I’m sorry, I should get back to work” or “I need to make a quick phone call” can help them slip away.
Later, schedule a quick meeting with the employee (or employees) who took things too far. Remind them to keep discussions professional and considerate.
Enforce anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies
Set clear boundaries between an opinion and a disrespectful or harassing comment. If someone crosses the line, take disciplinary action as you normally would.
Encourage nonpartisan political action
Most organizations don’t encourage political action in the workplace. That doesn’t mean you can’t encourage nonpartisan political action outside the office. You can motivate employees to vote. You can also share unbiased educational resources. Just be careful not to advocate for a specific candidate or party.
Last, but certainly not least, create a culture of respect. Politics in the workplace can create a divisive environment, so focus on creating a strong core of values that employees can share. Of these core values, respect should be at the top of the list.
Keep an open mind and approach everyone with kindness. This common ground can help employees achieve shared goals without stifling personal expression.
Prevention Is Key
Diverse opinions, beliefs, and political stances are necessary. They make your organization more creative, innovative, and productive. But when those political stances clash, they can negatively impact your entire business. A political activity policy and other proactive measures can make politics less scary in the workplace. SentricHR can help you share your policy with your employees and obtain ESIGN-compliant signatures whether you’re working from home or in the office.