Talking politics can wreak havoc in workplace

Cindy Krischer Goodman
Miami Herald

I am at Starbucks sipping a cappuccino when two men enter wearing white shirts, ties and slacks. They have come from their nearby office and are engaged in a heated debate about politics and who they plan to support. They are arguing about which candidate lies more, getting loud and ugly.

With coffee in hand, they head back to their workplace. I stare at them, wondering how they will return to their work responsibilities and leave the argument behind.

Arguments like these are breaking out everywhere, but when they occur among colleagues, the stakes are higher. Employees are more riled up about this year’s presidential election than those in the past. For employers, navigating the gray area of how much political discussion, candidate support and social media conversation to deem acceptable has become especially difficult.

In some offices, managers have made employees remove buttons and stickers on cubicles in support of a candidate, or discouraged workers from political talk on the job. In other workplaces, managers are comfortable with respectful debate about personalities and issues and encourage workers to stay abreast of current events that could affect business.

While the majority of HR professionals said their organization discouraged political activities in the workplace, two-thirds of companies said they don’t have a policy, and most of those who do, don’t enforce it, according to a June 2016 survey of 457 human resource professionals by the Society for Human Resource Management. At the same time, more than 25 percent of companies said they are seeing more tension, hostility or arguments about politics among employees this year than they saw during previous presidential elections.

To avoid political talk turning hostile, some bosses are using extra caution.

Longtime Florida lawmaker Elaine Bloom, now president and CEO of Plaza Health Network, the largest nursing home network in the Miami area, says in her daily interaction with executives and health care workers she often gets asked her thoughts on a political issue or candidate. “I have to be very careful,” she says.

Sometimes, she will clarify a fact or give her opinion, but make it clear that she doesn’t expect her staff or nursing home residents to agree with her view. Sometimes, she will discourage the conversation if she believes it’s going to create hard feelings. “I’ll say something like, ‘Let’s leave the political discussion for outside the workplace.’ ”

Experts recommend that managers take a proactive approach and address how political conversations should be handled. “Don’t wait for something to blow up,” says Edward Yost, director of employee relations for the Society for Human Resource Management. “Admit that this is a hotly contested, highly emotional political environment and while raising these discussions are not prohibited, co-workers need to recognize the potential fallout.”

With new election developments daily, political discussions in the lunchroom, parking lot and office cubicles are inevitable. Yet they may need to be quelled if someone feels bullied or harassed or can’t get his or her co-worker to stop talking. “These conversations could drag on for hours and become a productivity issue. When voices are raised, threats come out, or it becomes a distraction, a manager needs to step in.”

Even political activism on an employee’s personal time can become a problem, Yost says. If someone sees a bumper sticker on someone’s car or finds out a colleague is campaigning for a candidate, they can make a snap judgment about a co-worker’s beliefs. “It’s important to remind everyone that they are still going to be working together after the election and that it’s not smart to damage the cooperative working relationship they have now and in the future,” he says.

The potential for a loss of respect between co-workers worries attorney Eric Assouline. While legally banning or restricting political conversation at work is difficult, Assouline says he discourages political conversation as much as possible in his Fort Lauderdale, Fla., law office. “A lot of people feel very passionate about their political view and I don’t want to set a bomb off,” he says.

In prior elections, Assouline saw that fallout among colleagues can last long after the election, particularly when religious and political beliefs are involved. “Imagine how dangerous it is in a workplace if one comment leads someone to disrespect the other,” he says. “I don’t want my staff to lose respect for me, or I for them.”

High-level managers who choose to participate in political conversations need to be extra cautious. “They don’t want their staff to fear backlash for holding a different political view than they hold,” says April Boyer, an employment lawyer with K & L Gates in Miami. “That’s why some companies have stricter rules applying to supervisors.” If a supervisor touts his political views on Facebook where a staff member can see it, that could be considered harassment, Boyer says. “It’s possible the employee could come in and complain. These are complicated issues to work through.”

Outside the workplace, talking politics can be equally as detrimental for business relationships. When Miami attorney Leoncio de la Pena recently attended a wedding, he steered the conversation away from politics, realizing that potential clients or referral sources in attendance might disagree with his views. “Right now, people are finding it difficult to discuss politics in a civil way,” he says. Formerly an outspoken Republican, de la Pena says the environment has become “too delicate” for cocktail conversation about politics. “There’s a feeling that political talk is just too polarizing this year and no one wants their relationships to suffer.”

Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life.

Politics in the workplace

More than 72 percent of HR professionals said their organizations discourage political activities in the workplace, but only 24 percent of organizations have a written policy, and 8 percent have an unwritten policy about politics at work.

Employers’ policies on political activities most commonly prohibit:

■Employees from campaigning for a candidate or political party during work hours (included by 65 percent of those having policies).

■Employees from using their position to coerce a colleague to make political contributions or support a candidate or cause (62 percent).

■The use of an employer’s assets to support a candidate or party (62 percent).

A verbal warning and a written warning were the most common disciplinary actions for employees who violate a policy. Twenty-nine percent said termination also was a potential result. In the past 12 months, only 1 percent of survey respondents reported disciplining employees for violating the organization’s policy.

Source: Society for Human Resource Management