When Politics Enters the Workplace, How Should Employers Respond?
Talking about politics and social issues is challenging in the best of times. But over the last few years, political polarization has become a significant problem both in the U.S. and globally, with people often strongly divided in their ideological views.
While it once felt fairly easy to simply avoid bringing up potentially controversial issues in social settings — and the office — that’s no longer the case.
More so today, corporate leaders are often required to take a side so consumers can know whether the brand is aligned with their own values. For instance, one study found that 87% of consumers said they would purchase a product because a company advocated for an issue they cared about — and many others have shown similar results. It's no surprise, then, that there's been plenty of discussion in recent years about how companies should approach taking a public stand on political and social issues.
Meanwhile, many professionals continue to struggle with navigating difficult conversations in the office. In fact, a study from Staffbase found that responding authentically to current events topped the list of challenges for internal communications.
Politics Abound in a 'Permacrisis'
The Collins dictionary word of the year in 2022 was “permacrisis.” The term resonated for many people who feel that the world is dealing with a series of back-to-back unprecedented events. Even preceding the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, the U.S. has been contending with a long list of divisive issues such as racial inequality, a contentious presidential election, scientific misinformation and consequential Supreme Court decisions.
Oftentimes, these issues have a direct impact on employees. In 2021, amid the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, many companies began instituting vaccine mandates for employees looking to return to the office, and the Biden administration even took measures to create a nationwide vaccine mandate for private employers (which ultimately failed).
But political opposition to vaccines rose and led to disgruntlement among some workers. Research from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that 28% of employed Americans said they were ready to lost their job over the issue.
More recently, the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization ruling, which overturned Roe v. Wade, led to some difficult decisions for employers. Those in states where abortion was likely to be banned had to communicate potential changes in health coverage and decide whether to offer any travel-related benefits for those affected.
Dr. Shawnté Cox Holland, senior HR business partner at Vanguard, said she believes that all the workforce-related changes that have happened since the COVID-19 pandemic have also led to blurred lines between personal and professional lives. “If we’re on a mission to let people bring their authentic selves to work, it’s going to be more difficult to have clear lines of demarcation between what’s acceptable to discuss,” she said.
Lottie Bazley, senior strategic internal communications adviser at Staffbase, said these types of events have also given internal communications departments a new level of importance.
“We have stepped into a role as trusted advisors rather than just being channel managers or the people sending company wide emails,” Bazley said. “When something happens in the world, there’s now an expectation of businesses — i.e. internal comms — to talk about it.”
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The Cost of Employee Conflict
As these socio-political events heighten discord and conflict in larger society, the tensions are also manifesting in the office.
A study from Business for America and Civic Health Project found that 69% of corporate leaders believe growing social and political divides in the U.S. are creating negative effects on their employees and company culture, and close to half of them said leadership has “struggled to manage conflict, respond to issues without causing further division and generally act effectively within today’s cultural and political minefield.”
Another study from Goodfirms found similar feedback, with 57% of HR professionals reporting that political conversations in the workplace decreases productivity.
According to Vanguard's Holland, an organization’s ability to manage political and other sensitive conversations productively can also impact the psychological and cultural safety of employees, both positively or negatively depending on the response.
While she believes there’s room for intentional conversations about big-picture issues that further understanding of one another, more casual conversations or those that try to sway others in favor of a specific viewpoint, candidate or party often have less than desirable outcomes.
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Do Limits on Political Discussions Work?
Some companies have tried to manage these types of situations by simply eliminating them.
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In 2021, Basecamp’s CEO announced in a blog post that employees could no longer have societal or political conversations on the company’s Basecamp account (Coinbase announced a similar policy a year prior). It didn’t go well. Within days, Basecamp employees voiced their disapproval, and ultimately, a third of them resigned.
“Limiting political conversations is the wrong approach,” Bazley said. “If you’re talking to a room of adults, you shouldn’t be telling them what they can and can’t speak about. [Those issues] will come up anyway so won’t be effective.”
Other companies have taken a softer approach and instead adopted “political expression policies,” which lay out guidelines and restrictions on what employees can say, where and do as it relates to politics. However, the Goodfirms study found that 43% of employees believe such a policy would violate their freedom of expression.
Both Bazley and Holland agree that one-size-fit-all policies are unlikely to be successful, though Holland said it may make sense for certain companies, such as advocacy organizations, to permit more political speech than others. “The nature of your business and the culture of your organization matter,” she said. “Your policy should align with your cultural mandate.”
For global companies, however, these types of policy are better set at the regional or country level since political landscapes, norms and laws can vary widely, Bazley said. “If you do put something out, make sure you’ve first sought out employee opinions and desires. It should be a collaborative document rather than a rule book,” she said.
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Fostering Authentic, Empathetic Communication
Ultimately, employers have to accept that employees are going to have strong opinions on certain issues. However, internal comms and HR professionals can avoid fanning the flames by staying well-educated on all sides of these topics and not sharing misleading or partisan news.
“We have to make sure we’re not letting our bias, unconscious or conscious, take the story in a certain direction,” Bazley said. “We have to be conscious of the audiences we may reach.”
The following steps can also help deliver the right messaging:
- Support leaders when creating responses to current events. “They need to be able to talk about issues in an authentic and empathetic way,” Bazley said. Some leaders may feel uncomfortable speaking on sensitive topics because of their personal views or a fear of backlash, but creating fact-based briefs they can use to better understand issues can help.
- Offer help. When communicating policies or information on “heavy” issues such as abortion, make sure employees who may be struggling can connect with the right resources or support.
- Keep conversations two-way. “We can’t just guess how employees might feel,” Bazley said. Take a pulse of employee sentiment by facilitating conversations on intranets, in DEI communities and focus groups, or through surveys.
Holland also stressed the importance of setting the tone for conversations from the top down. Leadership should provide a clear direction for these types of talks and how to keep them healthy and respectful.
Bringing in experts can help. “These are delicate and sensitive topics, and organizations historically don’t have experience handling these conversations,” Holland said. “Bringing in a skilled facilitator can help keep things within the lines and achieve the right outcomes.”
Ultimately, Holland said, if handled appropriately, even difficult conversations can lead to better understanding, more effective teamwork, and a culture of acceptance. “We’ve entered an era where not only are these conversations happening more, but it’s valuable that they are,” she said.
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