When Politics Invades Your Workplace
Americans are talking about politics. This we knew.
But while the traditional advice is to steer clear of politics at the office, more than half of American workers in a new survey by the American Psychological Association—54 percent—say they're talking about it with their co-workers, an uptick since the thick of the campaign in September, when the number was 48 percent. About half have had post-election conversations with people who agree with them, a third with those who don't, and 15 percent have gotten into political arguments at work, according to the survey of 1,311 part-time or full-time employees, conducted online by Harris Poll from Feb. 16 to March 18.
The habit feeding this public clamor: Some 35 percent of workers report spending more time on news sites and social media to keep up with the latest political news.
It's difficult, and probably too early, to rigorously measure the impact these encounters might be having on productivity, but when asked how they were experiencing them, 40 percent of the survey's respondents listed at least one negative outcome. That included lower productivity (14 percent), worsening work quality (13 percent), stress or tension (26 percent), increased workplace hostility (18 percent), and negative perceptions of co-workers (16 percent). A quarter have avoided co-workers altogether because of their political views.
If productivity has declined, it wouldn't be surprising, said Edward Yost, HR partner for the Society for Human Resource Management. "These are not two-minute conversations," Yost said. "These are 20-, 30-minute, hourlong conversations when you're truly trying to convert somebody to your standpoint." If you're having the conversation in a break room or another public place, you can pull in even more colleagues—and burn even more company time.
It's not only the time spent debating whether the government should guarantee health insurance or get involved in overseas conflicts. "We're trying to work in more collaborative environments," Yost said. "So often, people, even though they need some piece of information to complete a project, they'd rather pull their own teeth out than talk to people they don't like."
The upside: About 30 percent of the study's respondents reported feeling more connected to co-workers or seeing them more positively. "When people agree with each other, there is bonding around these conversations," said David Ballard, assistant executive director for organizational excellence at the APA.
While many companies might prefer that politics be left at the door, barring these conversations is a losing battle, Ballard said. "They are going to happen anyway," he said. Better to spend the effort fostering a supportive work environment by modeling respectful behavior as managers and stepping in when an issue of intimidation, harassment, or bullying arises.
"It's not just about the election. It's about the culture of the organization," Ballard said. A culture of arguing will mean more arguing—about anything and everything. Employers can't successfully dictate the topics employees can and cannot discuss, he said, but "leaders need to be clear about [what constitutes acceptable behavior], not just about politics but about how people treat each other."
There are legal implications, too. Certain conversations closely tied to politics, like paid leave and minimum wage, are legally protected, Yost said, so "a strict prohibition policy is likely not going to be compliant with those protections." Still, he advises employees to avoid heated political conversations when possible, so as not to offend a co-worker or, even worse, a supervisor.
A workplace with clear standards of respect will have more civil conversations, said Jacinta Jiménez, a psychologist and head of coaching at BetterUp, which works with executives to build stronger teams. Managers should make it clear that employees are free to "set boundaries in conversations or [request that co-workers] ask for permission before bringing up politics," she said.
Jiménez cautions against hashing out, say, the border wall or abortion rights online, where "body language, facial expressions, and voice intonations go missing"—taking subtle signals of respect or compassion with them. Plus, she said, "people tend to be more tolerant of someone they know and see communicating directly in front of them."
Then there's diversity—and its complications. Lauded for bringing more perspectives to companies, diversity also "increases the likelihood of conflict and disagreement," Ballard said. Employers need to do more than just hire people with diverse backgrounds. They need to bring them fully into the organization and include them in decision making, he said.
When political discourse is so closely associated with those identities that make people diverse in the first place—their race, religion, gender, immigration status, and so forth—conversations can quickly take a personal, and offensive, turn. Jiménez warned against letting political discussions bring about "covering"—hiding or downplaying aspects of a person's identity.
And sometimes, Ballard said, somebody just has to change the subject.