It would be an understatement to say that most Americans have rather strong opinions about the upcoming election one way or another. When discussions get heated or personal, politics in the workplace can cause serious disruptions. Even when conversations are more respectful than the televised debates between actual candidates, one or both participants might become or resentful. Even if political arguments seem harmless to participants, they can become disruptive distractions for the whole workplace and create lasting personnel conflicts. This election season, it is important to prepare for political discord and minimize its impact on your day-to-day business.
Review office policies
Rather than waiting until there’s a problem, it’s best to clearly lay out policies and remind employees before incidents occur. Before updating current policies, you’ll want to make sure you’re compliant with the National Labor Relations Act, employee privacy laws in your state, and any lawful activities statutes. Employees have a right to discuss politics in the office when it comes to proposals that may affect the terms and conditions of their own employment, like changes to the minimum wage and working conditions. When it comes to regulating employee behavior on social media, especially outside of business hours, you may need to seek legal counsel to avoid overstepping.
Whenever possible, your business should remain neutral on political issues and candidates. Unnecessary political theater can alienate potential clients, as well as current and future employees, with divergent views. Even people with sympathetic views may be skeptical about whether the public stance is ultimately a marketing stunt. When employees—especially management and c-suite—wear clothing and make other displays of their personal political alignment, this can give the impression that the company, as a whole, shares those views. The company’s neutrality may therefore require some regulation of employee behavior, at least during the workday.
Prepare team leaders and management
Despite adapting to COVID-19 and other challenges of 2020, your managers may be caught unprepared for political flare-ups. When employees respond to controversial comments, situations can get out of hand quickly. Managers should also be careful to avoid questioning employees about political views, which could lead to employees feeling marginalized or persecuted. Redirect employees away from counterproductive arguments, and take the opportunity to boost your performance-based work culture.
Lead employees by example
Managers and team leaders should set an example for employees when it comes to politics in the office by establishing a positive and inclusive tone for the workplace. If managers casually discuss politics in the office, then subordinates may assume they’re free to confront their peers over political issues. Rather than supporting a specific candidate, why not channel that energy into starting a charitable giving program? Supporting a reputable charity can avoid many of the compromises that come with supporting a particular political party or candidate, giving employees a cause to justify more collaboration.
Keep it professional
On less controversial issues, your workforce may have enjoyed embracing local sports rivalries and getting to know each other personally. Political issues, on the other hand, often have a very strong emotional impact attached to them, and it may be impossible to keep certain discussions from boiling over. Rather than judging or addressing particular views, it can be helpful to remind employees of their shared professional goals, pointing out how infighting is counterproductive for the company.
When one employee’s political display goes without a response from management, others may feel free to retaliate, duplicate that behavior, or take things one step further, inevitably escalating the situation. If you followed the first tip, then you’ve already updated policies and reminded employees of the consequences for inappropriate behavior. It’s important to respond impartially and follow company guidelines regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the political statements made by individuals. The focus should be on appropriateness for the workplace, not a judgment of the views expressed.
Separate your online personal and professional life
A lot of discussions are getting heated on social media, and “likes” mean that your name can appear alongside posts that you wouldn’t personally choose to “share” on your own page. If you choose to post politically controversial content on your personal page, consider using privacy settings that will make your posts less publicly accessible. Be aware that anything you post (including comments) can still become a liability, even if you use the strictest privacy settings. And remember, always think about the potential ramifications before you post.
Adopt a social media policy
As for employees using social media, businesses may have limited options for controlling their behavior outside of work. Some states specifically regulate what measures employers can use to monitor employees on social media. If employees create an online group to discuss their problems with a particular manager, that communication may actually be protected by the National Labor Relations Act. As long as employees make it clear that their posts don’t reflect the political views of your company, it may be safest to avoid policing their personal choices more than necessary. Still, it’s important to define boundaries in advance.
The key is to be careful and considerate whenever politics in the office come up. When words are chosen thoughtfully and responsibly, your business can take a stand on key issues like social justice, but that doesn’t require alignment with a particular party or candidate. In addition to succeeding in your industry, your business can help to achieve positive change in your community, but lasting change will require working across party lines and avoiding the petty conflicts that so easily derail more substantive work.