Suzanne Lucas

What Can Employers Do to Mediate Political Workplace Conflict?

Workplace conflict is inevitable. That’s a good thing: You don’t want a bevy of drones who nod in agreement with everything the boss says. But sometimes workplace communication can sour when conflict arises over politics instead of the best marketing scheme or who should have won last night’s reality show finale.

Here’s what to do when the political arena becomes a little too much like a real-life prize fight — and your employees are right in the middle of it.

How Does Political Speech Become a Distraction?

Sometimes our political beliefs seem so reasonable and clear that it just boggles our minds that anyone could possibly disagree with us. The reality is, though, that about half the country has a different opinion than you do on any given political issue. Some people find political debates invigorating, but others tend to take them personally. And one 2014 study found that people attribute their own political beliefs to love but their opponents’ views to hate.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have a good political discussion. You just have to set some ground rules:

  • Start from the assumption that everyone has good intentions. Sometimes people need a reminder!
  • Emphasize policies, not people. In other words, it’s okay to debate a political issue, but keep the focus on the issue itself. Don’t attack people.
  • No one will be punished for expressing a political view.
  • The code of conduct still applies, even (or especially) during political discussions.

As the 2020 presidential campaign heats up, at least one employee may become a tad obsessed with the race, even to the detriment of their work. Remember this principle: Address the performance issue, not the political views.

What About the First Amendment?

In the United States, freedom of speech is guaranteed — but only where the government is concerned. Private businesses can regulate speech within their walls, and yes, you can fire the person ranting about some extremist policy or horrible politician.

However, there are exceptions. Some states, like California, consider political opinions to be protected speech. You can ban all talk about politics, but you can’t say, “Our employees only support this candidate.” Once you open the door to political speech, it’s open. Likewise, Colorado prohibits you from firing someone for participating in legal actions. So if your employee makes front-page news for protesting something, you can’t legally fire them.

In other words, check your state and local laws before you start making restrictions. But even if your state allows you to regulate political speech, do you really want to? You may think that everyone shares your opinions (because you are so obviously right), but the reality is that people will keep their mouth shut to please their boss. Instead of making a fuss, they’ll start to leave.

A better plan is to remind people to focus on their work and leave politics and other discussions for the lunchroom. It’s okay to interrupt a personal conversation on the clock with a quick, “Hey, let’s get back to work!”

Do You Want Your Company to Be Political?

Nike picked a side in the debate over kneeling football players. Patagonia ran ads proclaiming a position in a controversial national monument decision. Plenty of businesses donate money to political candidates or parties — and some donate to both sides in a single election. It’s your right as a business owner to make things political, but you do so at your own risk. You may find that your clients don’t agree with you. If you’re willing to lose business over your beliefs, that’s great, but be aware of the possibility.

If you choose to do this, remember that some of your employees will undoubtedly disagree with you. Continue to treat them with respect. You want a diversity of opinion, even if it causes you a twinge of annoyance, and that means listening to people with different backgrounds and views.

Workplace conflict doesn’t have to result in anger and hate — even when the question at hand is a political one. These may be serious issues, but here kindergarten rules actually work pretty well. Treat everyone nicely, and if you can’t find a kind way to say something, it might be best you keep it to yourself.

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