a protester in black covered in a cloud of smoke
a protester in black covered in a cloud of smoke
#politicsinthe workplace

Politics in the Workplace, How to Avoid Political Conflict

By
Paul Kiernan
(1.20.2023)

You cannot tell your employees or co-workers how to vote, what to believe, or which party to support. Well, you can, but then your legal situation will just bring the whole thing down on your head.

It doesn’t matter which side of the political fence you fall on, and this article will not be about trying to sway you one way or the other. The political situation in this country can best be described as volatile. Families are being torn apart by heated political arguments; violence is becoming the norm, and level-headed political discussion has been eclipsed by emotional haranguing and fear.

This kind of extreme politics is destroying families and friendships, and it ruins your business. Political arguments or even the quiet, slow political burn that some people experience and then explode one day in the company kitchen, is one way to ensure there is no unity in the workplace; tension will reign, productivity will fall off, cliques will be formed, and then, someone is dressing like napoleon and riding a horse through H.R.

You cannot tell your employees or co-workers how to vote, what to believe, or which party to support. Well, you can, but then your legal situation will just bring the whole thing down on your head. So, what do you do? How do you handle the political tension at work?

Here are some tips that could help you out of a jam and ease some of the tension in the office.

There are laws

Each state has laws that govern politics in the workplace. For example, in most cases, an employer has the right to an employee to remove any overtly partisan items such as hats or T-shirts. That’s within the law in most states. Employers also have the right to limit political discussions if they impede the work that needs to be done.

Be careful; people still have the right to free speech, and some of what they talk about can be protected. So, know the laws in your state and be sure of them before you take action. When you can use the law to limit or prohibit politically volatile issues, use it directly, clearly, know the law and stand by it.

Politics are There (H2)

Politics are there, in the news, online, and on the radio (wait, does anyone use the radio anymore?), and then ignore it, and it will go away policy is not going to work. Political topics will come up now and then, and ignoring them will make it worse. Acknowledge the situation and clarify to employees that not everyone shares the same views and is entitled to their own opinion. Still, the bottom line is to respect everyone and to be aware if your beliefs are causing stress, anger, or depression. Don’t ignore it; deal with it quickly, clearly, and openly.

Maybe a Formal Policy

A formal political policy might be the answer. This policy should outline what is and isn’t acceptable and what happens if the policy is broken. Have clear goals and clear punishments. There has to be some muscle behind this so that employees know there are consequences. This is a political landscape powered by whataboutism; if you’re not clear with the rules and regs of your political policy, you’re leaving yourself open to arguments about being fair and what Stan in accounting and his posters.

Two things before you implement this policy, make sure you are fully aware of the laws surrounding it and be sure you gather your employees and explain exactly what and why this policy is being implemented. Make sure your managers or CEOs say this is their idea; they decided on the policy, and do not allow any blame to be cast on individual employees. Avoid saying things like Brenda came to us or Charlie feels uncomfortable. Make the policy originate from the top.

Find Common Ground

Instead of focusing on the headline-grabbing political argument, encourage employees to seek common ground. Explore a common theme or need in the office and divert attention there. Do not say one party or law is right, and do not try to quash all political discourse, just focus on what is shared and feed that unity.

Finding common ground can reduce the number and severity of political arguments. It also points out that, despite our differences, we can all work together on common goals and find connections. Collaboration can increase when you use this tactic.

You May have to be a Peacemaker

A dove in flight in a city

If you’re the business owner or the manager, you must keep politically neutral at work, always. And, rather than getting pulled into political discussions, you’ll want to remain removed and be ready to act as an arbiter in serious arguments. You will be the voice of reason, and your task will be primarily to de-escalate the situation.

Even if you hear things that may be personally upsetting, you’ve got to be strong, neutral, and present the voice of reason. Always stay calm, never add to the fire, and lead with reason rather than emotion. Once you get emotional, you’ve lost ground. Treat your people with respect, and lead by example. If this is the way you deal with these types of situations, you will gain a reputation as one who listens and defuses rather than one who just throws out punishments and walks away.

You Have to be a Great Listener

We have discussed this here before, listening is a skill that doesn't come naturally, isn't easy to master, but is so vital to any work and life relationship. One of the troubles in today’s political climate that psychiatrists highlight is that people have stopped listening. They argue over or around without taking time to actually listen to what’s being said to them.

Listening has always been the key to so much in business and life. Now with the pandemic, we all need to up our listening skills, whether it’s on a zoom call or you're trying to establish better connections with clients, current and new. The better you are at listening, the easier it will be for you to defuse highly charged political discussions and avoid workplace catastrophes.

When dealing with a political argument, you, as arbitrator, need to listen to all that is being said and then some. You need to listen to the words being spoken, what’s under the words, the body language, and the emotions being used. You have to be a listening master, which requires patience and disconnection from anything even remotely personal in the conversation.

Once you srat listening on a deeper level, you’ll start to understand what’s really going on. What is the political argument truly about? What’s going on underneath the words? Why is this getting so emotional so quickly?

Once you’ve become a better listener, you’ll have better tools to use when diffusing a political argument that has gone on too long, is affecting productivity, or is causing dissension in the ranks.

Not Easy

This is not an easy task because these days, more than ever, politics is a sticking point for a lot of folks and their reactions are often knee-jerk and emotional.

Listening, diffusing the emotion, staying neutral, and listening (yup, said it twice) are all ways to combat politics from taking over the workplace. Politics are there; you cannot ignore them or take sides at work.

Know the laws in your state, stay calm, be firm and address the situation head-on and immediately. The longer you let political unrest in the workplace fester, the worse it becomes.