How to manage political discourse in the workplace

  • Mature leader using laptop while his younger employees looking at the screen

    Mature leader using laptop while his younger employees looking at the screen

  • Daily Herald File Photo

 
By Bob McIntyre
Insperity
Updated 6/17/2021 10:54 AM

Social justice and political issues have dominated much of the news cycle in 2021. Add to that sensitivities around COVID-19, such as masks and vaccinations, and workplace conversations can easily become impassioned, even in a remote or hybrid environment.

Chicagoland employers should be aware of ongoing issues and how they may affect business and employee performance. The onus is on leaders to mitigate these challenges before tempers flare.

 

Every business should have a plan that is consistent with existing workplace policies to address any tensions before they arise. With that in mind, here are a few tips that can help suburban business owners maintain respect and civility across their workforce, in turn helping employees stay engaged and productive.

Prioritize policies and values

Many areas of the workplace structure may have changed as a result of the pandemic, but managers should remind workers of the organization's mission, values and policies, especially those that govern political conversations and paraphernalia. The digitization of workplace communication means employees can easily be distracted if a colleague brings up a controversial subject. Encouraging respect for colleagues, often a foundation of values-driven companies, can help mitigate tensions.

Lead by example

Leadership should be an example to follow in the office, setting the standard during in-person and virtual meetings and conversations. Business owners should consider coaching managers to be aware of their comments on potentially contentious matters. If a supervisor or senior figure vocalizes his or her political opinions, employees will feel empowered to follow suit. Also, political humor, even when intended as a joke, can encourage similar behavior and should be avoided.

Routinely review policies

Workplace policies should be considered a work in progress and should be reviewed and revised as needed. In particular, policies concerning political activity should be updated to reflect the specifics of a virtual workplace. To mitigate any potential issues, leaders should consider proactively communicating staff expectations and sharing examples of improper behavior. It should be clear to employees that these actions cannot interfere with work.

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Stay neutral

Business owners and companies in general should stay neutral and refrain from expressing an opinion or stance on any political candidate or issue. By expressing their views, leaders may alienate employees who hold differing views. Furthermore, employers may want to discourage political memorabilia or attire in the workplace, including common areas and employee workstations. This may be particularly important for employees who have direct contact with clients and vendors. In a remote setting, this can apply to anything visible during a video call.

Act fast

If issues arise, employers must act quickly to diffuse the situation. Investigate any complaints with workplace policies and the behavior in mind, rather than the differing political opinions.

A virtual environment may present unique challenges for diffusing tension, but expediency is crucial to avoid escalation.

Coach managers

Managers are the first line of defense against employee conflict. Consequently, all managers should be aware of any company policies -- new, existing or updated -- and be trained to properly implement them. When responding to complaints, managers should always respect employee boundaries and remember to stay neutral and avoid discussing their political affiliations. As a result, leaders can delicately point out their concerns with an employee's behavior and explain how their actions violated policy.

Encourage workers to unplug

In the past year many working Americans have learned that remote work can be stressful. Faced with the uncertainty of the pandemic, sharing a workplace with family and competing demands only compounds the stress of recent events. For plugged in workers, the constant stream of negative or provocative news headlines can be a major distraction and increase anxiety further. Savvy employers should consider encouraging employees to unplug and take a break from news coverage and social media to help maintain focus and manage stress levels.

Following this advice should help suburban employers navigate sensitive political issues and topics in the workplace, set expectations for workers and limit the impact current events can have on employee morale and productivity.

• Bob McIntyre is a director of service operations with Insperity, a leading provider of human resources and business performance solutions. For more about Insperity, call (800) 465-3800 or visit www.insperity.com.

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