Midterm elections are just two months away and the temptation to talk politics will get even harder to resist. But is the office the right place for potentially heated discussions? How much should employers tolerate and how do you keep it civil?

When work and politics mix, tensions can rise. Add in 24/7 news alerts and an abundance of divisive, deeply personal issues, and polite conversations can quickly inflame. While casually talking politics may be harmless enough during everyday situations like team meetings and water cooler chats, the potential fallout can be far more serious.

Recent headlines illustrate just how pervasive politics are in our workplaces – from the cubicle to the boardroom. Employees at tech behemoths like Amazon, Microsoft and Google recently demanded, with some signing an online petition, that their companies end agreements with certain federal entities due to controversial political issues. Several CEOs and company leaders are also taking a stand. For example, Dick’s Sporting Goods banned the sale of assault weapons after the Parkland school shooting in February 2018.

Understanding the Ground Rules

It’s essential that we as talent management professionals know how to manage these situations. Handling political tensions in the modern workplace is challenging, but understanding the ground rules is a strong start.  

Although you definitely want to get the guidelines firsthand from your legal department (and if guidelines don’t exist, consider putting some in place), experts say that it is illegal to attempt to ban political discussion. This is especially true if the discussion pertains to labor issues like harassment and workplace safety. That doesn’t mean you can’t create specific policies to keep things civil, though, or take specific actions to thwart political activities in the office.

Considering the unique political environment we live in today, I talked with leaders in Talent Management companies to get their insights on how to tactfully mitigate the potential disruption talking politics may have on your business and overall culture.

How to Keep Political Conversations Civil

Respect differing opinions – Difficult conversations and personality conflicts at work are going to happen, and Michele McCauley, SVP of Human Resources at Apex Systems suggests that we, “Always seek to understand. Ask questions about why the other person feels the way that they do or supports the candidate that they do.”

McCauley adds that it’s imperative to keep the conversation going, even in the workplace.

“We have got to be open to having discussions on politics and understanding the other side, or we will never bridge the gap that has increasingly gotten larger between the two sides.”

Coach managers to recognize and mitigate tense situations – Sometimes what starts as a harmless back-and-forth about a news headline or even a conversation about someone’s weekend plans can turn heated. Sean Gilligan, President of Technology Recruiting for Harvey Nash North America recommends that, “colleagues should be cautious when discussing politics at work; all individuals have their own unique opinions, and friendly banter can quickly turn into a hostile conversation should there be opposing views.” 

To keep political conversations civil, companies should coach team leaders through potential scenarios. McCauley shares that she has encountered some situations that became so divisive that they “eroded trust between teammates. In those cases, it’s best that the manager give direction that there shouldn’t be political discussions or that they should be considerate when talking loudly to their friends in the office environment.”

Turn to HR for support – Managers are typically responsible for ensuring their team is within the boundaries of company policy when it comes to political discussions and activities at work. If major transgressions happen, especially those that disrupt the work environment or lead to emotional debates, HR is a helpful resource. Penny Queller, SVP and General Manager of Monster.com’s Enterprise Talent Solutions shares, “These conversations are often tense. If they lead to a disagreement or a relationship rift that causes disruption in work productivity, HR should step in.”

Weigh the consequences – Educate employees so they know that before they engage with a co-worker on a political topic, they should take stock of the situation. Queller states that, “It’s likely you’ll have a sense of a colleague’s perspective. If you’re aware that you differ substantially on an issue, you may want to consider whether engaging in the discussion at work is the right decision.” At the same time, Queller recognizes and believes that “some sensitive topics deserve a healthy debate.”  

Proceed with caution if you’re in top leadership – Despite recent reports that show more CEOs are comfortable taking a stand, many experts recommend restraint. “C-Level executives need to be the most cautious as it pertains to political communications,” says Gilligan, but he agrees that it’s impossible to completely ignore discussions on topical events. “Constructive conversations should be encouraged by leadership when the topics are items that would affect the business,” such as new corporate tax rates or how immigration issues may alter the talent supply for staffing/recruiting companies.

McCauley adds that even if CEOs have the best intentions, the nature of their role as company steward complicates the situation, “It’s likely comments from the CEO would be one-sided since most employees don’t have the opportunity to engage in conversation directly… intentions can be misunderstood without opportunities to gain additional context.”

We spend much of our lives in the office, so it’s only natural that our personal beliefs and passions come through in our workplace interactions. It’s our responsibility as talent management professionals to encourage open discourse while promoting company policies to minimize disruption; maintain a productive and welcoming workplace; and be cognizant of the potential impact politics may have on an employment brand.  

Leslie Vickrey

Leslie Vickrey is a marketing expert and business advisor who began her career with McDonald’s Corporation and Junior Achievement. However, after serving as head of marketing for Spherion’s technology division, Leslie quickly found her niche. Today, as CEO of ClearEdge Marketing, Leslie works closely with leaders in Talent Management and technology to drive business results with strategic marketing programs. Leslie’s passion for creating meaningful connections extends beyond ClearEdge. In 2013, Leslie Co-Founded ARA, a group dedicated to attracting, retaining and advancing women in tech. She’s also on the Board of Directors for i.c.stars and Chicago Innovation; was recognized by The Blue Sky Vault, Blue Network, featuring 100 of Chicago’s most compelling innovators and entrepreneurs; is part of UIC Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame; and was named one of the 2016 Enterprising Women of the Year. Follow Leslie on Twitter and LinkedIn to discuss all things Marketing, HR and leadership.