HR Insights 6 min

Talking Politics in the Workplace: 3 Preventive Measures

May 8, 2020

Should you talk about politics in the workplace? HR professionals will likely tell you from experience that the simple answer is “no.” The fallout from uncontrolled political conversation begins with broken coworker relationships and can even result in allegations of discrimination or harassment.

HR’s strategic toolbox for controlling political discussions ranges between two extremes: monitoring employees and actively censoring political speech, or giving employees carte blanche and handling the fallout on a case-by-case basis. While both techniques will provide some level of control, one does it at the expense of employee autonomy, and the other at the expense of workplace harmony.

So, how do you keep employees from discussing politics at work? The most effective way is to build a middle road between prohibition and permission, and create a culture where employees value mutual trust among their coworkers more than their political expression. In short, to help employees understand for themselves why political discussions are something best left outside the office. We’ll cover three preventive measures to help create this culture and promote emotionally intelligent employees who resist talking politics in the workplace.

Why “Just Don’t Talk Politics” Falls Short

Talking politics in the workplace might seem like a simple issue to tackle. But the logistical headaches start with defining political speech and only continue from there, making one-sided enforcement impractical and frustrating.

While the First Amendment protects employees’ right to political speech, it doesn’t supersede private businesses’ right to enforce policies covering employee behaviors. With few exceptions, political speech and its aftermath fall in the category of employee behavior.

However, HR shoulders the burden of defining political speech and pairing offenses with consequences without any kind of universal yardstick. And even if such a yardstick existed, there might not be one small enough to catch political damage before it happens. That’s because the human brain is smart enough to catch the smallest detail, and because biased thinking is hard to overcome.

Political Impressions and Personal Bias

Long before people make conscious declarations of their political leanings, their actions can send more subtle messages that solidify in the minds of their coworkers. We’re all susceptible to the power of personal bias, the lightning-fast shortcuts our brains develop to think efficiently. Without teaching employees to understand and account for their personal biases (both political and otherwise), it can be difficult for coworkers to develop the trust they need to work well together.

Biases are a natural part of the human thought process, evolved to protect us from immediate dangers: we see, we associate, we run…or not. But the same mechanisms that identify physical dangers also lead us to make snap decisions about other people based on the smallest cues as the brain defends itself from anything that contradicts its core beliefs.

Trying to fight biased thinking with punitive consequences alone is like trying to swat a fly with a sledgehammer: the original threat is long gone when the hammer falls, the damage has already been done, and the follow-up only causes more destruction.

With this perspective in mind, how can HR possibly police political speech? Campaign signs on the outward-facing cubicle wall are easy to take down, but what about an employee who has a political bumper sticker? What happens if employees overhear colleagues joking about a hot-button political issue, or if someone sees an article, a headline, or even a website whose viewpoint they disagree with while discussing work with a coworker?

If these questions feel similar to what you’d see in an anti-harassment training module, it’s because similar mental processes happen during people’s response to political speech. Much of what we call political leanings stem from core beliefs about what is right and what is wrong, morally speaking. And our response to attacks on these core views can be nearly as strong as the fear for personal safety caused by other forms of harassment.

Unconscious bias sends our brains into defense mode, labeling the offending word, sign, or person as “bad” without waiting for higher reasoning to make a more informed decision. A person acting on bias alone isn’t interested in compromise or resolution—it’s fight or flight all the way. And political positions bring an army to this fight, as it’s easier to stick with a position when thousands of people share the same opinion.

If employees don’t understand and recognize political bias, it can do a number on collaboration and culture among your teams. A single political impression can taint an employee’s coworker with the worst stereotypes of a political party, including attitudes about racial, class, and gender issues, all without the need for evidence or confirmation.

When your organization asks employees to trust and compromise with a coworker with differing views on a work issue, will they assume the best? Or will their political biases kick in and cause them to question their coworkers’ motivation and competence?

Learn which popular interview questions not to ask—and what to ask instead.

A Proactive Approach to Politics in the Workplace

Keeping your workplace completely free of political interactions would require keeping personal interactions to a minimum. Such conditions rarely produce the level of connection with colleagues that employees need to stay engaged (and mentally healthy).

While it’s impossible to have a completely politics-free workplace, there are proactive strategies to help your people trust each other and work together in spite of their differences. Here are three to begin with:

1. Mitigate the Effects of Bias

There’s no way to completely eradicate personal biases. But with the right structure and instruction, your employees can work together to counter the effects of biases in the following crucial areas:

  • Hiring: If a single person handles the hiring process from job description to offer letter, then that person’s biases will play a part in the final decision. Involving additional people in the steps of the hiring process, from reading resumes to conducting interviews, gives a chance to come to a consensus and catch any variances caused by biases.
  • Performance: As with hiring, deciding the criteria in advance and getting feedback from several different people helps mitigate some of the arbitrary judgments involved in performance management. Recording performance data from self, peer, and manager evaluations can also provide employees with assurance that their fate isn’t in the hands of one person (while protecting your organization with evidence of a fair decision-making process).

2. Teach Principles of Emotional Intelligence

According to Daniel Goleman, the internationally-known psychologist who developed the concept, emotional intelligence consists of five pillars:

  • Self-awareness: the ability to understand emotions, including those that come from personal biases
  • Self-regulation: the ability to control emotional impulses and think before acting or responding
  • Motivation: the willingness to forego immediate gratification in favor of a long-term goal
  • Empathy: the ability to acknowledge others’ points of view without questioning their motivations or abilities
  • Social skills: the ability to maintain principles of emotional intelligence in a social setting while helping others do the same

It’s easy to see the contrast with modern politics, where the most divisive partisans react immediately and violently, let their emotions drive their actions, agitate for immediate change, and question the motivations, morals, and competence of their opponents.

Let’s be clear—having strong political views is not a sign of low emotional intelligence. But strong political views can lead to inappropriate emotional responses without the right personal controls in place. If employees value talking politics at work more than avoiding workplace conflict, it’s a sign that there’s room to help them improve the social skills needed to become better teammates.

Take time to explore concepts like empathy and motivation with managers and employees. This can take as much time as a full Crucial Conversations workshop (as we’ve done at BambooHR), or as little time as encouraging everyone to set a goal to listen to someone they don’t agree with and understand their point of view.

3. Develop a Values-Based Culture

Review your company values. Do they encourage employees to focus on what matters most, develop emotional intelligence, and work well together? For example, among the rest of our values, BambooHR has four that define our ideal collaborative culture: Be Open, Assume the Best, Do the Right Thing, and Lead from Where You Are.

Building values and training your current and new employees about them helps stabilize your culture in the long term without sacrificing diversity or expression (or having employees default to shared political beliefs). As turnover happens over time, a values-based culture can stand on its own, without depending on any kind of political balance among its employees.

Stopping Political Damage Before It Starts

HR will always have to protect their employees and their organizations from bad behavior like talking politics in the workplace. But teaching employees principles to help them manage their perceptions and self-expression helps stop the damage before it starts.

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Brian Anderson

Brian Anderson expertly decodes all things HR, drawing on a decade of technical writing in the business organization industry to provide editorial support to internal and external learning programs at BambooHR. His writing explores the different motivations that shape the employee experience and the psychology of human resources.