Fostering Workplace Civility in the Age of Partisanship

Article main image
May 1, 2020

America goes to the polls in November. While that may be months away, the election is already a loud part of news coverage and conversations across the country. Campaign rallies draw thousands of attendees. Cable networks provide a 24-hour-a-day news cycle with a decidedly divisive bent. Volunteers canvas door-to-door enthusiastically seeking to get out the vote for their candidate of choice. As political news dominates the headlines, it will inevitably spill over into workplace conversations. How can you avoid disruptive and divisive discord among your team?

Politics has become increasingly partisan, often to a debilitating degree. One of the strengths of a thriving workplace is that it brings together a diverse staff. People of different ages, backgrounds, and interests come together to help an organization achieve its goals. Even as cars in the office parking lot are laden with bumper stickers for opposing candidates, Human Resources can help employees celebrate diversity without descending to petty tribalism.

Human resources plays a key role in setting the tone for interpersonal interactions in the office. HR serves as the first point of contact with new employees, introducing them to the organizational culture and employment. They continue to guide and direct the culture of personnel throughout its growth and development. Finally, they may be called in to address challenging situations as needed. In an election year, there are numerous ways you can serve the organization in a way that strengthens connections, not strains relationships. Here are four approaches:

  1. Practice appreciation. A healthy, positive relationship can withstand much more conflict than a distant or strained one. Be proactive in forming positive bonds by appreciating employees. This can be done both on an interpersonal and on an institutional level. Create an intra-employee recognition program where peers can highlight the good their coworkers do. This can be a welcome supplement to hierarchical recognition programs, where supervisors recognize subordinates (which should also be in play). This provides a solid foundation for workplace relationships at all times, especially in a fraught election cycle.
  2. Reiterate Policies. While your company may have a clearly defined policy about topics that are inappropriate for workplace discussion, it’s likely buried in an employee handbook that most members of the staff haven’t seen in years. It’s appropriate to remind employees that we can contribute to a collaborative, respectful work environment for all by avoiding topics such as religion and politics. Ideally, a reminder like this comes before there have been any problems with political debates, so the tone can avoid any connotations of scolding.
  3. Equip with strategies. Fraught political conversations are lacking in empathy, respect, and trust. Provide employees with communication tools that can help them be more effective in all their interactions. Two skills to highlight that have a direct bearing on political conversations are perspective taking and the importance of “I messages.” Perspective-taking allows us to step into the experience of another person. This enables us to understand where they are coming from and find common ground. When individuals use “I messages,” they take ownership of their experience in an interaction. Thus, instead of saying, “You’re ruining lunch by bringing up politics,” an employee can calmly reply, “I don’t feel comfortable talking about politics at work. Did you see the hockey game last night?”
  4. Provide a common cause. Facilitate group volunteer activities. This allows employees to come together around a shared altruistic goal. It also deepens employee connections as coworkers interact outside of their usual routines and office space. Solicit buy-in by taking suggestions for volunteer opportunities from employees and allowing them to vote on options. Make volunteer programs a regular part of your corporate rhythms. Volunteer days allow all of us to remember the values we share as we serve others.

Human Resources can be a key leader in charting a path of civility that can have transformative implications for the culture of an organization. As employees learn to communicate respectfully, engage genuinely, and navigate delicate topics, trust will grow and productivity will increase. That is an outcome we can all vote for in this election cycle and beyond.