It’s safe to say that the political climate, like the natural one, is somewhat charged right now. In the US, Democrats and Republicans are further apart ideologically now “than at any time in the past 50 years.”
A significant 24% of Republican employees—and 23% of Democrat employees—wouldn’t want to work with a co-worker who plans to vote for a presidential candidate they don’t like in the next election.
So, it’s something of a tinderbox and HR professionals and leaders may well end up having to deal with some potentially incendiary situations.
To help keep the peace, we asked some HR experts and business leaders to explain how they’ve approached creating company policies that cover political expression in the workplace and their best practices for de-escalating workplace political disagreements when things get heated.
Let’s look at what the law says first.
The Legal Stuff
Most Americans hold their constitutional right to free speech close to heart.
So you might be surprised to hear that, in most U.S. states, the First Amendment only covers government employees, not employees working for private businesses. This means that, once most US citizens arrive at work, they leave their right to freely express their political views at the door.
In fact, most employment relationships are “at-will” in the U.S. This means employers are well within their rights to let an employee go at any time and for any reason—or even for no real reason at all if they feel like it—which means most U.S. businesses can ban all political discussion in the workplace and fire any employees talking politics at work.
It’s no wonder why 60% of employees believe discussing politics at work could negatively impact their career opportunities.
That’s not the case in every state though. Some have passed legislation that gives private sector workers employee rights that protect them from being discriminated against at work because of their political activity.
According to The National Law Review:
- In Colorado, North Dakota, and Utah, employers can’t discriminate against employees based on any "lawful conduct outside of work." In Colorado and North Dakota, employees also can’t be fired for any off-duty lawful activity, including speech.
- In Connecticut, private employers can’t discriminate against their workers based on the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment—as long as an employee’s political activity doesn’t substantially interfere with their job performance.
- In California and New York, workers can’t be discriminated against for any off-duty "recreational activities" they take part in—which covers attending political events.
- Employers can’t retaliate against employees for engaging in "political activities” in the states and territories of California, Colorado, Guam, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah, and West Virginia or the cities of Seattle (Washington) and Madison (Wisconsin).
- In New Mexico, employees' "political opinions” are protected by law.
- Businesses are explicitly banned from discriminating against employees based on party membership or for engaging in election-related speech and political activities in the states and territories of New York, Illinois, Washington DC, Utah, Iowa, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands and the cities of Broward County (Florida) and Urbana (Illinois).
This leaves businesses in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida (with the exception of Broward County), Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin (with the exception of Madison), and Wyoming free to ban on political discussions in the workplace.
But should they? Let’s take a closer look at what happens when you try to ban people from talking politics in the workplace—and some tried-and-tested policies that help you keep the peace a lot more effectively than trying to police what your employees can and can’t say.
Writing Your Own Policies
Of course, just because businesses can put a blanket ban on talking politics at work doesn’t mean they should. Just ask Basecamp CEO, Jason Fried.
In 2021, a Basecamp employee flagged they didn’t appreciate an internal list of “funny” customer names. This sparked a fierce debate among the company’s staff centered around diversity, inclusion, and tolerance.
Fried was perfectly entitled to do that, but trying to control what his employees could and couldn’t say at work didn’t go down well at all.
That could have been the least of Fried’s worries if he hadn’t reversed his decision. As Talia Knowles, HR Specialist at Human Resource told me, “Some people find their identity in what is considered by others to be ‘political,’ such as LGBTQ rights, religion, or hatred of a president. Others take those people’s identities as a personal affront to their own religious beliefs or freedom of expression.”
Which begs the question: what does banning “politics” from the workplace look like when one employee’s request to use their correct pronouns—or their choice to wear a form of religious dress—is another’s hot-button political issue?
Trying to keep the peace quickly starts to look a lot like workplace discrimination if you’re not careful here.
Ultimately, political conversations are going to happen at work whether they’re “banned” or not. In fact, 83% of people say they talk about politics at work, with people at either end of the political spectrum being more likely to bring up politics in the workplace than those who sit on the fence.
Despite this, only 8% of organizations have communicated guidelines to employees around political discussions at work.
Trust me: you’ll want a formal policy around political speech in your business in place before things go nuclear between two employees who don’t see eye-to-eye on a hot-button issue.
The more proactive you are about creating an environment where your employees can civilly discuss their views through the right policies, the less likely that is to happen.
But if banning all political talk is a bad move, what should your policies around politics at work cover?
I asked leaders and HR professionals for their best advice for creating workplace policies that help maintain a healthy working environment for your people.
Here’s what they told me:
- Set clear expectations in your Code of Conduct Policy. “This should include things like wearing appropriate workwear (without slogans/offensive language) and how the organization promotes open and transparent communication.” - Tracy Rawlinson
- Get an official policy against political discrimination in place. “This policy should include unwelcome behavior such as jokes, insults, or gestures. Make it clear that any employee engaging in such behavior will face disciplinary action if necessary.” says Mary Alice Pizana, Human Resources Manager at Herrman and Herrman PLLC
- Set a precedent of respect above all. “You might not be able to ban all discussions of sensitive topics, but encourage your employees to respect each other’s beliefs and avoid inflammatory topics,” says Knowles.
- Help your people recognize discrimination and harassment. “Provide regular training on handling political conflicts at work and recognizing signs of discrimination or harassment,” suggests Pizana, “This training can help employees identify potential issues early on and take appropriate action before they escalate.”
- Be clear on what’s not appropriate for the company Slack. “Much of our interaction happens online, so we've put together guidelines for positive and respectful online communication,” Chris Alexakis, the CEO of Cabinet Select told me. “This includes refraining from sharing politically charged content on company channels.”
- Set clear expectations from day one. “Even during the onboarding process for new hires, you should inform all employees that the company has well-defined policies and procedures in place for conflict resolution and a code of conduct,” says Andre Oentoro, CEO of Breadnbeyond, “Outline what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable when discussing political topics at work. This will provide a framework for addressing and managing political conflicts when they arise.”
When Tensions Flare
Let’s face it, even the most airtight HR policies and procedures won’t prevent political disagreements from popping up altogether.
In fact, 45% percent of U.S. workers say they’ve personally experienced political disagreements in the workplace, and over 1 in 10 have actually experienced bullying in the workplace due to their political views.
Here’s how HR experts approach politically-centered arguments when they do blow up.
Don’t let politics become the elephant in the room
It can be tempting to treat it as a taboo subject once the dust has settled on a political debate that reaches boiling point in the office.
After all, if two employees have opposing political beliefs then there doesn’t seem much use in retreading that ground. Is it not better to leave the whole thing in the rearview mirror and move forward?
But that would be a blunder, Lou Reverchuk, Co-founder and CEO at EchoGlobal told me. “The big mistake some leaders make is to think that not talking about an event makes it lose its importance when actually the exact opposite happens,” he said.
Instead of leaving the incident to become the elephant in the room between everyone who was privy to the bust-up, a manager should pull the people involved in the disagreement into a meeting and give them feedback on how it affected their teammates. “This meeting shouldn’t be about saying who's right or who's wrong,” says Reverchuk. “It should be about asking the people involved to put themselves in the shoes of the other person—and those who witnessed the argument—and offering an efficient solution.”
Of course, when two employees have a blow-out argument in front of their teammates, they’re not the only ones affected. “The climate that is created from these conflicts affects all team members,” says Reverchuk. “So, it’s important to hold a meeting—after the conversation with the members who were involved in politically-based conflict—with all the employees of the sector in order to close the matter.”
Bringing the argument back up again might seem counterproductive, but it will actually prevent the event from lingering over everyone and help set the warring employees on a path to being able to work with each other without any issues.
Fight polarization with camaraderie
For the most part, political disagreements aren’t a big deal between people who get along with each other.
I doubt you share the exact same political opinions as all your friends but you still enjoy hanging out with them because your relationship is about so much more than which political candidate they voted for in the last election.
But you’re a lot less likely to let things slide with Mike from accounting if all you know about him is that he supports a different political party than you.
Now I know team building activities get a bad rep (I’ve certainly cringed through most I’ve been made to do), but “Events that bring employees together in a non-political context come in handy to foster a sense of camaraderie and build positive relationships among team members,” says Oentoro.
Bringing people together through things as simple as icebreaker questions can be the perfect antidote to things turning sour when your people start talking politics, as we all cut people we know a lot more slack than strangers.
Remind your employees they’re at work to work
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether two employees are arguing about gun rights or whether pineapple belongs on pizza (it totally does by the way...).
If they’re causing a scene or making their teammates feel like they need to walk on eggshells around them, they need to cut it out.
So, when political discussions get really heated in the workplace, Knowles says it’s well worth “Reminding employees that they’re at work to work, not solve national problems.”
This gentle reminder can often be enough to diffuse the situation if you’ve got a strong company culture that encourages your people to prioritize mutual respect and kindness.
If not, it’s time to move to conflict resolution.
Master the art of conflict resolution
“Politics-based conflicts are in essence no different from any other type of conflict,” Diane Rosen, an HR consultant at Compass Consultants, explained to me. This means they should be navigated like any other kind of conflict by “Encouraging people to ask rather than tell, listen to learn, engage in dialogue rather than download, and look for common ground on a human level,” says Rosen.
People so often go into political discussions geared up to try to “win”. To de-escalate political debates between teammates, Rosen recommends stepping in and encouraging the warring workers to “Respect each other, have an open mind, and be willing not to win”.
Today, our politics are so polarising that it can be hard for it not to affect our working relationships if we find out that the people we work with sit on the other side of the political fence to us.
If you can successfully dial things back a few notches when hot-button topics come up, you might be able to encourage employees at opposite ends of the political spectrum to learn to live and let live.
Role model the right behavior
Great leaders motivate their people to bring their best selves to work every day. CEOs who spend their weekends wading into political debates on social media? They do the opposite.
“Leaders are role models to their employees,” explains Tracy Rawlinson, who has over 30 years of HR-related experience. “If their boss showcases listening and conflict resolution skills, employees can learn how to react and diffuse a situation where people don’t have the same views.”
With this in mind, your higher-ups should think twice about wearing their political affiliation on their sleeves. And managers should definitely focus on resolving political discussions around the office, not getting involved in them.
Use performance reviews as a chance for reflection
Most people don’t set out to deliberately upset their colleagues. But when water cooler talk turns to politics, things can quickly get ugly.
“In most situations, people don’t realize their actions cause harm,” says Rawlinson. “So, reflect on real examples of times when an employee struggled to keep the peace with a colleague with them during their performance reviews. Use a restorative approach that describes their behavior, and agree on an action plan together that will help stop things from getting out of hand again”.
The Final Word
2024 is set to be one of the most contentious elections in U.S. history and that tension is bound to spill over into your workplace—especially if you’ve got teammates who sit on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Use the expert tips we’ve outlined here for the best chances of keeping the peace between employees who don’t see eye-to-eye.
You can also get further support in the People Managing People Community, a supportive community of HR and business leaders passionate about building organizations of the future.