In election's wake, navigating political conversations at work

Published Dec. 21, 2016

AUSTIN, Texas — Tensions around political conversations have run high in recent weeks following the presidential election — and yes, those moments can show up in the workplace.

How workers and bosses handle those conversations can be as varied as the political spectrum.

Some workplaces ban talking about politics, while others actually encourage open discussions during scheduled meetings.

"Each organization has its own corporate culture and values and will handle political discussions at work differently," said Matt Roddan, senior vice president and head of employee research at market research firm ORC International. "Regardless of how open or reserved an organization is to discussing politics, leadership should set the pace in alignment with culture and values."

It can be a tough balance to strike.

Workers and bosses need to realize that when talking politics, the "rules still apply," Roddan says. Company standards about harassment, intimidation and discriminatory conversations should be abided by regardless of the situation.

Discussions over sensitive topics — such as race, immigration and same-sex marriage — can become heated and might be best avoided completely, Roddan said. If conversations do come up, it's best to tread carefully, be respectful and understand that everyone's views aren't going to be the same.

Every person will have a personal reaction to the election, so it's important to read situations before engaging and know when to walk away.

"Do your best not to offend or do anything to stain your reputation — individuals are all entitled to opinions, but be mindful and respectful of differing views," especially in the current environment, Roddan said.

Managers can lead by example by bringing focus and guidance to the organization, while reminding workers of acceptable and unacceptable behavior.

Be "cognizant that employees may be emotional and need time to 'grieve,' " Roddan says. "Realize the employees may have very strong reactions to the election outcome. Give them opportunity and outlet to the express their opinions productively and professionally."

New York attorney Nance Schick says companies shouldn't pretend political discussions will stay out of the workplace.

"They will occur overtly under your guidance and leadership, or they will likely occur haphazardly in secret," Schick says. "Sneaking around, whispering and trying to guess who voted for whom is often as distracting . . . than acknowledging the elephant in the room."

Schick says she allows employees to have discussions, give a respectful, listening ear but also make sure that those talks don't get out of hand or interfere with work. For example, she allows discussions at the start of team meetings.

"We have agreed to be safe spaces and support each other," Schick said.

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Another challenging area, Roddan says, is social media. While workers have a right to use social media to express their feelings, problems can arise if an employee's statements could harm their employer's brand.

"Provide reasonable guidelines and expectations," he says.

During campaign season, angry words were expressed on both sides of the aisle. Employers are under no obligation to tolerate those kinds of comments in the workplace, said Jackie Ford, partner at the Houston office of Vorys, Sater, Seymour & Pease.

"Free speech rights do not apply to a private workplace. The first amendment right of free speech is a right against the government, not against private parties," Ford said. "Employers can still set the tone for civil discourse, as long as they apply standards in a fair and unbiased way. Setting the tone from the top can help prevent problems further down the line of employees."

Melinda Alison, regional vice president for Accountemps in Austin, says being politically savvy doesn't have to be a negative and can lead to effective relationships and conversations.

That said, although political banter is somewhat acceptable in the workplace, workers should tread carefully when discussing politics to avoid offending someone, Alison warns.

"Knowing your audience before playing political pundit will prevent uncomfortable and awkward discussions," Alison said. "Political conversations that become heated disrupt productivity in the workplace and can harm office relationships."

And workers shouldn't feel pressured to share their views.

"If you want to, politely excuse yourself by saying with a smile: 'Sorry, I'm staying out of this one,' " Alison said. And "steer clear of making assumptions about what people think. They may surprise you."