How should HR deal with political discussions in the workplace? (2023)

It was just a photo and it was in an employee's cubicle. The employee at a small marketing firm in the Columbus, Ohio area had attended the 2017 Women's March the day after President Donald Trump's inauguration, and when she returned, she put a photo on her desk of a child who was a sign that reads "Stop White Supremacy." Who could have a problem with that?

Apparently an employee who worked in IT. He had office work to do, saw the picture and turned to a stunned HR manager who told him he was offended. "Don't you know that 'White Supremacy' is code for 'Trump'?" the IT rep asked the HR manager, who asked to be identified as just Amy. He told her he wanted to put up his own sign that said "Deport All Illegals".

Amy was confused and in a dilemma on how to keep the peace in the office. "I thought, 'Isn't white supremacy a bad thing?'" she says. "He saw the photo as a direct [challenge] to his conservative views."

But how would other employees or visitors to the company react to a sign saying “Illegals”?

In the end, Amy contacted a senior manager who she knew held conservative views, and this person spoke to the IT rep to make him feel less alone.

How should HR deal with political discussions in the workplace? (1)This is the new world HR faces as the country's sharp political polarization invades the workplace. And it went well beyond setting rules about whether employees can wear shirts or pins that support political candidates. It's much more personal, people feel threatened not only by their candidate's choice but also by their own value system. The President's removal from office by the Chamber of Deputies and his subsequent acquittal by the Senate only served to deepen the schism, with the country split almost entirely along party lines.

Corporations have also grappled with the implications of this polarization at an institutional level: film companies, for example, have threatened to boycott states that have enacted strict abortion restrictions, while college athletic leagues have threatened to boycott states with "bathroom bills" exclusive to transgender people. individuals. . Chick-fil-A has been criticized for donating to charities opposed to LGBTQ rights (although the company changed its policy last November). And Hobby Lobby was sued for refusing to offer birth control through its employee health plan on religious grounds.

politically polarized

People's political views, particularly after the contentious 2016 election and during the 2020 impeachment hearings and presidential campaign, are “very ingrained. I think a lot of people don't respect people who don't share their beliefs," said Julie Moore, SHRM-SCP, employment attorney with the Employment Practice Group in Wellesley, Massachusetts. "I've never experienced it as divisive as it is right now. I've seen people actually avoid talking [with colleagues] because their political views were diametrically opposed. This leads to workplace bullying.”

Avoiding creating a toxic work environment should be a priority goal for HR, work culture experts say, and that can be difficult. "I've seen people fight at work over political differences," says Gregory A. Hearing, a Tampa, Fla., resident labor attorney for the administration who serves on the executive board of The Barra's Labor and Employment Division Florida sits. "You're just kidding."

How should HR deal with political discussions in the workplace? (2)

Society for Personnel Management (SHRM)pollA study conducted last October found that 42% of employees had "political disagreements" at work and 12% experienced party affiliation. Calls to SHRM's HR Knowledge Center about how to deal with political conversations in the workplace increased from 310 in 2017 to 900 in 2019. The majority (56%) of respondents to the SHRM survey said that conversations about politics in the workplace are always in the office have become more common in the past four years.

And if it seems that political divisions have widened and behavior has become more hateful and personal, it is because they have. A 2019 study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that 82% of Republicans believe the Democratic Party was dominated by socialists. (Similarly, Democrats believe their party is just trying to make capitalism work.) Meanwhile, 80% of Democrats believe the Republican Party is controlled by racists. (But 94% of Republicans disagree, saying their party is only trying to protect American values.)

Not only do many Americans dislike a person who identifies with the other political party, they would not want their children to marry one. A previous PRRI study found that 45% of Democrats would be unhappy if their son or daughter married a Republican, and 35% of Republicans would be unhappy if their son or daughter married a Democrat.

How should HR deal with political discussions in the workplace? (3)

How HR can avoid problems

As a recruitment consultant, Phyllis G. Hartman has faced some difficult situations. There was the bank's president, who, unlike many bank employees, supported President Trump. Then there was the county where some of the officers were elected, meaning they were biased by their own office to be political.

How should an HR professional deal with these workplace situations and prevent them from becoming toxic?

"I ask the audience, 'How many of you agree that respect at work is important?' We get into a discussion and people [see] that having a good, respectful culture means we're all going to be successful."

HR pros say just making things public helps, as it can ease tension and make people realize there are colleagues who see things differently, and that's okay.

What is not okay is using “disagreement” as a shield for bullying or not cooperating with others. Insperity, a Houston-based human resources outsourcing company, prepared an email to be distributed by a client's CEO, explaining the company's policy that everyone's opinion should be respected and that this is the only way to build trust among build up the employees.

While HR can hardly keep Aretha Franklin's iconic song "Respect" playing on an endless loop, there are a few actions that HR and legal experts recommend:

  • Establish office politics and conduct training on how to show respect to colleagues, but don't specifically focus on politics that can fuel conflict.
  • Clarifying what is an "opinion" and what amounts to harassment of another worker is certainly a difficult task given that some of the rhetoric and social media posts by elected officials would violate anti-discrimination statutes, Galen notes G Medley . , Associate General Counsel and recruitment consultant at Engage PEO.
  • Put an example above. When the boss is open about supporting one candidate or another, employees may feel intimidated or fear they will be treated differently if they disagree. Therefore, managers must remain silent. “Don't use social networks to talk about politics. Period,” advises Stephen Paskoff, owner and CEO of ELI Inc., an Atlanta-based company that provides workplace culture training.
  • Consider keeping political shows off office TVs, including those in the break room.
  • In meetings, steer conversations away from politics or keep the discussion on the broader aspects of an issue.
  • Restrict or ban visual displays in the office, e.g. B. Buttons for campaigns, stickers and posters.
  • Be careful not to conflict with federal and state laws that protect certain forms of speech. The National Labor Relations Board, for example, protects workers who discuss unionization and working conditions, so it's unrealistic to ban politics from the office altogether, experts say. -HER.
(Video) Should HR ban political chat at work?

How should HR deal with political discussions in the workplace? (4)

Tensions are high

In today's environment, seemingly innocuous events can cause problems, as Carolyn Johnson-Evans, director of human resources at the Children's Museum of Portland, Oregon, learned. Around the time of Martin Luther King Jr. last year, an employee wrote a quote from King on a whiteboard in a common area. "Your manager came in, passed out and said, 'You are not allowed to make political statements at work,'" Johnson-Evans recalled. The disgruntled employee turned to Human Resources for help.

"I don't see [King] as a political person," he says. But in your HR role, you need to step back and look at issues through a politicized lens and from all angles. The decision was technical: the employee was told that the whiteboard, located in the break room, was for the employer to convey information to employees, not for employees to communicate with each other.

Heightened political tensions can affect both individual health and workplace productivity. A 2017 survey by the American Psychological Association found that 26% of people said that political debates at work make them tense (a notable increase from the 17% who felt so in a similar study in August 2016), and 21% said they felt more cynical and negative at work because of political speech (up from 15% in August). Perhaps most concerning for HR, 40% said the divisive political environment has led to at least one negative outcome, whether it's lower quality work, lower productivity, or negative attitudes towards colleagues.

A survey by Reflective, a performance management platform, found that 32% of US workers said they needed a mental health day after the 2016 election to either cry or celebrate Trump.

“A few years ago we had a very emotional choice. A lot of people felt strong on one side or the other,” said Phyllis G. Hartman, SHRM-SCP, president of Pittsburgh-based executive search firm PGHR Consulting. "People sometimes think, 'Wow, this person isn't like me. I can't trust them. Perhaps they even treated the individual differently. But that's just a bias based on the party they belong to. It's just as bad as treating someone badly because of the color of their skin or their religion."

look for solutions

Are management and HR obligated to let people say what they want in the name of freedom of speech? When does expressing a political opinion become harassment or intimidation of a colleague? Can HR ban political conversations in the office to prevent discussions that could create a toxic environment?

While many companies have specific policies, such as For example, a ban on using the photocopier or other office resources for political activity, a study by the Illinois Technology Association found that 79% of the companies surveyed did not have a general policy for political discussions. But, says Lindsey Perez, the association's vice president of operations, "to think that these discussions won't happen is unrealistic."

(Video) Ask the HR Girl: Heated Political Conversation in Workplace

How should HR deal with political discussions in the workplace? (5)

The solutions aren't always easy, as Google found out. After being accused of stifling conservative speech and firing employees who expressed such views, the tech giant issued a company policy aimed at ending the conflict.

“While sharing information and ideas with colleagues helps build a community, it's not like pausing the workday to engage in an intense discussion about politics or the latest news. Our primary responsibility is to do the work we were hired to do and not waste time discussing non-work related issues,” the policy reads.

In September 2019, as part of an agreement with the National Labor Relations Board, Google released a workers' rights list posted at its offices, which emphasized workers' rights to organize, speak to the press without prior authorization, and discuss pay and jobs Expenditure. . In addition, the company said it would not "threaten employees for raising diversity issues with us and asking for clarification on acceptable behavior in the workplace."

However, situations like these do not mean that employers cannot fire employees for offensive or offensive activities that could be viewed as political. For example, in 2018, a Virginia woman was photographed on her bicycle giving the middle finger to the presidential entourage as she passed. She admitted this, was fired, and lost a subsequent wrongful termination lawsuit. (He did, however, win the election for district office last November.)

Likewise, the director of a West Virginia nonprofit that compared then-First Lady Michelle Obama to a monkey on Facebook has lost her job. And after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in one death, at least four people were fired for expressing Nazi ideology on social media.

How should HR deal with political discussions in the workplace? (6)

Discover the legal scenario

When it comes to political expression, hiring managers need to know the law. And sometimes it's darker than employers and employees think.

First, forget (virtually) the First Amendment. It simply prohibits the government from restricting free speech, says Jay Hornack, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law who specializes in workers' rights. "In a private workplace," according to Hornack, employers can set their own rules about what language is acceptable. First amendment rights are not “something an employee can assert against an employer,” he says.

There are exceptions: Because they work for the government, public employees are protected from retaliation for expressing certain First Amendment rights (although the courts have been wary of how far this goes). And the National Labor Relations Act allows private sector workers to engage in "combined activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual support," meaning they cannot be fired for discussing wages, hours or working conditions.

In addition, some jurisdictions have laws that protect employees' political expressions. According to the National Law Review:

  • California, Colorado, Guam, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah and West Virginia, and the cities of Seattle and Madison, Wisconsin prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who engage in "unlawful activities." "Politics". 🇧🇷
  • New Mexico protects employees' rights to express "political opinions."
  • Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, New York, Puerto Rico, Utah, the US Virgin Islands and Washington, D.C. and Broward County, Fla., and Urbana, Illinois, expressly prohibit employers from discriminating against employees because of their party affiliation or participation in election-related political speeches and activities. -HER.

How should HR deal with political discussions in the workplace? (7)

The effect of social media

It's clear that hiring managers prefer to resolve the issue before it gets to the point of firing someone. But the proliferation of social media, where employees can express their political views more openly and combatively, makes this more of a challenge.

"Statistically, there should be people in his own office who voted for both parties," said Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP, vice president of human resources at LaRosa's Inc., a regional pizza chain. "I said it once on Twitter and people freaked out: HR has to be Swiss." Browne, a SHRM board member, says he tried to say HR should remain as neutral as possible, but "people attacked the metaphor."


"I don't see people making big political speeches in office," Browne adds. "There are people with different feelings, but who are more drawn to social media than to the workplace." But this tendency to turn to Facebook and Twitter can impact relationships and productivity in the workplace: A 2017 survey by staffing firm Betterworks found that 87% of employees read political posts on social media during work hours and 73% have discussed politics with their colleagues since the 2016 election (and 37% have discussed it with their boss or manager). A staggering 29 percent said they have been less productive since the election, a figure that rises to 35 percent for those who read 10 or more political social media posts during the workday.

"That's not new. He's just excited," says culture expert Josh Levine, author ofGreat Mondays: How to create a corporate culture that loves employees(McGraw Hill, 2018), says about the political conflicts in office. You can discuss politics in a bourgeois manner, "but you can't force it on the people" with whom you work, he adds.

get staff

Most employees form relationships with colleagues through what Steve Flamisch, a publicist at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, calls “first level conversation”: sports, weather and pop culture.

"But when staff get more comfortable, they mix up level one and level two in general conversations, especially during election periods," he says. HR, he says, "needs to ensure that employees feel protected and supported by the organizational climate."

So can HR just ban political conversations and activities in the workplace? Yes and no, say HR and legal experts.

Federal law protects the right of employees to discuss labor matters. In addition, many states have laws that prohibit an employer from coercing or influencing employees, or from discriminating against employees because of their political or voting activities, according to Galen G. Medley, associate general counsel and human resources consultant at Engage PEO in Hollywood. Florida. In some jurisdictions, political affiliations and activities are protected categories under their anti-discrimination laws, it said.

It's not a good idea for HR to stifle appraisal interviews, as diversity of opinion can be a key factor in fostering creativity and new ideas in the workplace, experts say. But a line can be crossed when what one person considers a political statement is interpreted by a colleague as harassment or offense.

For example, an opinion about immigration or building a wall along the southern US border can easily become uncomfortable territory when shared with a Muslim or Latino colleague. Discussions about security or gun control can also be highly emotional, along with the prevalence of high-profile mass shootings. Someone whose politics or religion dictates that LGBTQ people are not entitled to certain protections could be in trouble for making hostile remarks to their LGBTQ peers. In many cases, the political has become very personal and HR has to take care of everything.

Potentially problematic language “goes to culture, goes to national origin, goes to ancestry. That goes on forever with sexual orientation," said Mark Marsen, director of human resources for Allies for Health + Wellbeing, which has 46 employees and is based in Pittsburgh. "You can't control what people think. YouCan Iregulate how people behave in certain circumstances”.

How should HR deal with political discussions in the workplace? (8)

This can happen to you...

Even if it's not a team-red-team-blue match, incidents can arise at work that create tension. And HR may need to step in, if only to de-escalate a conflict before it becomes more serious. Last year, a human resources professional posted an anecdote on SHRM Connect, the online community of SHRM members, about an employee who hung two American flags in his office to commemorate the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Some colleagues who were born in other countries took offense.

In this case, hiring managers suggested the company should find a way to get others involved, perhaps by asking employees to donate flags from their home countries and find a wall to display them.

SHRM asked HR professionals to evaluate some what-if scenarios. Your answers:

Lage:A co-worker wears a candidate's campaign button around the office and a co-worker asks her to take it off because he thinks political beliefs should be kept out of the workplace.

(Video) Political Correctness | The 21st Century Workplace: A HR & EEO Guide

Response from HR:First, human resources must determine whether political beliefs, affiliation or activity is a protected category in the state or county where the company operates, says employment attorney Julie Moore, SHRM-SCP. Otherwise, a company can set its own policy, but must enforce it consistently. If buttons and stickers are allowed, HR needs to remind employees to be tolerant and polite.

Lage:An employee hangs a small rainbow flag in his cabin to support LGBTQ rights. One morning he comes to work and the flag is gone.

Response from HR:If it's a one-off incident, human resources should assume a harmless explanation, as if it fell and the cleaning crew picked it up, says Mark Marsen, director of human resources for Pittsburgh-based Allies for Health + Wellbeing. If there has ever been anti-LGBTQ sentiment, HR and the department head should be talking about inclusion and setting clearer expectations. HR must replace the flag with a larger one at no cost to the employee.

Lage:An employee walking home from work sees a group of anti-abortion activists and recognizes a colleague in the group. The next day, he tells several colleagues what he saw, prompting the protester to complain to HR.

Response from HR:The protester is free to engage in such activities outside of work, and the returning employee is also free to discuss it with colleagues, Moore says. Human Resources should monitor the situation to determine if it results in any form of harassment or inappropriate comments. Human resources must also ensure that no work-related conversations involve religion, gender, pregnancy, or other categories protected by law. -HER.

How should HR deal with political discussions in the workplace? (9)

a matter of respect

Legal harassment is "a word that people use very easily," says Jennifer Rodriguez, an employment attorney at Culhane Meadows in Dallas. He notes that the law protects people from harassment based solely on certain protected classifications, such as race, age, and sex. However, that does not mean that HR does not have the right to insist on an environment of mutual respect. "Language that annoys or negatively affects labor relations will not be tolerated," Rodríguez proposes as a stated policy. Creating a culture of mutual respect and consideration is key, HR experts say.

Hartman, who conducts many bullying prevention training sessions, calls her approach "It's all about respect" and picks up the conversation from there. Danna Hewick, SHRM-SCP, vice president of human resources at USSI, a cleaning company based in Bethesda, Maryland, says the company started increasing its workplace culture efforts a few years ago. "This is fundamental to dealing with any type of conflict," he says, "especially any conflict in the divisive political arena."

The company employs a lot of immigrants, Hewick says, so “we don't have these conversations about walls, whether [the walls] are right or wrong. It would be a very sensitive topic in our company. We do not allow discussions or conduct in the office that could be considered abusive, harassing or disruptive.”

Managers need to be extra careful, says James McDonald Jr., a partner and employment attorney at Fisher Phillips in Irvine, Calif. be construed as hostile to Latino employees, he says. Even saying someone supports "traditional values" can be a charged statement, says McDonald. “Managers have to be very careful. You have an authority role."

Michael Timmes, senior human resources specialist at Insperity, a Houston-based human resources outsourcing service provider, says his training focuses on respect for a person's work. He asks the group, "How do we honor this value?"

By asking a person this question, you force the person to step back and think carefully before saying anything to a co-worker that could create unnecessary conflict, says Timmes. “We respect diversity of opinion. Ultimately, we value what everyone brings to this organization. But we also combine that with the fact that we are held liable if the behavior does not follow our guidelines."

Stephen Paskoff, owner and CEO of ELI Inc., an Atlanta-based company that provides workplace culture training, agrees. "We want people to be careful about what they say, avoid provocative topics, and not force a fight" with people who aren't interested, Paskoff said. "Unless you're willing to have a two-way conversation," he says, your best bet is silence. "If you can't listen, you have nothing to say. Job." Because not saying anything would make things a lot easier for HR.

Susan Milligan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

(Video) HR Works Podcast: Election 2016 & Politics in the Workplace


How to avoid political discussions at work? ›

5 Ways to Steer Clear of Political Conversations at Work
  1. Change the Topic. If you are in a one-on-one conversation, this is a good strategy to get the discussion back to something safer without being confrontational. ...
  2. Smile and Nod. ...
  3. Neutral Phrases. ...
  4. Point Out Things Are Getting Too Heated. ...
  5. Leave.
Oct 15, 2022

How do you deal with politics in the workplace? ›

Let's look at some tips for how you can get better at office politics.
  1. Understand formal and informal networks. ...
  2. Build positive work relationships. ...
  3. Keep it professional. ...
  4. Develop your soft skills. ...
  5. Speak up for yourself. ...
  6. Maintain a positive outlook. ...
  7. Create a positive company culture. ...
  8. Encourage positive, open communication.
Oct 29, 2021

Why is it important for HR managers to manage office politics? ›

Human Resources Can Manage Office Politics

Human Resources can prevent office politics from becoming destructive. In fact, HR is best equipped to foster a positive and productive work environment. Limiting the effect of office politics should be a priority.

Can politics be discussed in the workplace? ›

In many situations, it simply makes sense to tell employees to not discuss politics at work. However, many states — including California — prohibit employers from directing or controlling employees' political activities.

How do you deal with negative politics in the workplace? ›

Try to stay on good terms with everyone.

Nothing can ruin employee engagement like office politics. The only way to win is not to play. Try to stay on good terms with everyone. Stay positive and avoid “Negative Nelly” and “Complainer Carl.” Connect with co-workers, yes, but stay focused on collaboration and solutions.

Why do employees need to avoid political discussion in workplace? ›

Your coworkers might feel strongly about their political leanings. Bringing up controversial issues can quickly lead to heated, unproductive arguments. In extreme cases, these arguments can lead to workplace harassment, defamation, physical assaults, and potentially, termination.

How do you talk to employees about politics? ›

This expert says you shouldn't keep politics out of the office—here's the right way to talk about it at work
  1. Don't try to win. ...
  2. Listen empathetically. ...
  3. Learn what experience formed the opinion. ...
  4. Be ready to be uncomfortable in your vulnerability. ...
  5. Be willing to learn. ...
  6. Know when a discussion will not be productive.
Nov 5, 2020

How can we avoid office politics and gossip? ›

10 Ways to Avoid Office Politics
  1. They're Watching You.
  2. Don't Vent at Work. ...
  3. Think Long-Term. ...
  4. Identify Backstabbers. ...
  5. Choose Your Friends Carefully. ...
  6. Stay Informed. ...
  7. Don't Gossip. ...
  8. Communicate with Your Boss. ...

How do you deal with political stress? ›

Coping with Socio-Political Stress
  1. Limit Your Intake of News and Social Media. ...
  2. Maintain Your Routine and Engage in Healthy Activities. ...
  3. Practice Relaxation. ...
  4. Move Your Body. ...
  5. Recognize Your Limits. ...
  6. Engage in Healthy Communication and Seek Community. ...
  7. Acknowledge Feelings. ...
  8. Get Active.

How can political behavior be prevented in an organization? ›

Strategies For Managing Organizational Politics
  1. Reduce Uncertainty In The Workplace. ...
  2. Promote Collaborative Working. ...
  3. Keep Your Ear To The Ground. ...
  4. Be A Good Role Model. ...
  5. Be Transparent. ...
  6. Don't Have Favorites. ...
  7. Zero Tolerance Of Destructive Organizational Politics. ...
  8. Intervene When Necessary.
Feb 3, 2022

How do you neutralize office politics? ›

One must try to avoid politics for a healthy and positive ambience at the workplace.
Ways to Reduce Politics at the Workplace
  1. Job Satisfaction. ...
  2. Transparency. ...
  3. Team Work. ...
  4. Discussions. ...
  5. Communication. ...
  6. Maintain the decorum of the workplace. ...
  7. Partiality. ...
  8. Positive frame of mind.

How do you stay neutral in office politics? ›

Stay neutral

Don't take sides in a conflict. It's important to remain as neutral as possible, and if you are asked to comment, keep your remarks focused on what you think is best for the business. This can calm tensions when emotions are running high or people are beginning to take things personally.


1. How to Deal with Difficult People | Jay Johnson | TEDxLivoniaCCLibrary
(TEDx Talks)
2. HR Hot Topics – October, 2020: Trump vs. Biden – The Risk of Politics in the Workplace
(HRM Services)
3. How to start changing an unhealthy work environment | Glenn D. Rolfsen | TEDxOslo
(TEDx Talks)
4. The Trial of Adolf Hitler: Never-Before-Told Story of the Scandalous Trial & Rise of Nazi Germany
(The Memory Hole)
5. Why There’s So Much Conflict at Work and What You Can Do to Fix It | Liz Kislik | TEDxBaylorSchool
(TEDx Talks)
6. HR Chat w/Employco USA: Banning Political Talk in the Workplace
(Employco USA)


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