HR Roundtable: What to Do About Political Talk At Work

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Oct 14, 2016

HR Roundtable logoThe September (Cincinnati) HR Roundtable was jumping into controversial waters, but the timing was perfect because of the current event that will be occurring in November. The topic was “Politics In the Workplace.”

This is one of those taboo topics that people tend to skirt around because people take fierce sides, it can get emotional and people are usually overtly opinionated versus having a discussion. This is classic HR and needed to be tackled. To get started, the small groups considered these three questions:

  • How much can/can’t a person express their political views at work?
  • What happens when senior management shares their political beliefs?
  • What can HR do in the midst of this?

The small group discussions were electric, but more respectful than the recent series of debates. The conversation was deep and some really solid answers came back to the larger group.

1. How much can/can’t a person express their political views at work?

  • “As little as possible” and “As much as possible” — The first answers captured just how difficult this topic is. Most companies would prefer people keep political conversations and stances to themselves. The general feel is that the company environment is not the proper place to discuss politics. On the other hand, the conversations are happening anyway. You can’t control it or stop it even if you think you have an iron clad policy. People talk. The question that needs to be considered is how the management and HR respond towards political discussion.
  • It depends — This is honestly a great answer for this topic. You can use this answer for most HR situations. However, when delicate topics come up, you need to evaluate the approach, tone, items discussed, etc. We tend to overreact when that just isn’t necessary. A key learning from this entire topic is that HR needs to evaluate how it will respond, not “if” it should.
  • Measure the risk personally/professionally — This was an intriguing answer because it assumes that employees will be reflective on potential outcomes before expressing themselves. That doesn’t happen. Our emotions and opinions get the best of us. We may choose to swallow our thoughts and not share them, but it is difficult to think that people would weigh their options. It’s a very healthy and mature approach, but people tend to jump in before thinking.
  • You company culture sets the tone — This is true from senior management down to the front line. If you can assess how conversations generally occur in your company’s culture, you’ll get a feel of what type of conversation is allowed and what isn’t. Since cultures vary from company to company and even from department to department, it’s hard to pin down what conversational tone defines who they are.
  • Has to be “okay” because it affects employees and companies — Politics, and the decisions resulting from regulations and legislation, affect people personally and as entire organizations. Instead of assuming that political conversations have to be tied to one candidate or another, teach people to talk about how larger decisions are affecting them. Give them a place and an environment where it’s healthy to ask questions and express opinions.

2. What happens when senior management expresses political beliefs?

  • It depends on what industry you’re from — This was a fantastic answer because we don’t usually consider this. There are industries where politics affect them every day in regards to their business and services. Governments may be clients locally or as federal contractors. Therefore, talking politics may carry more weight in these environments. It’s important to understand how your company/industry is connected and affected politically because it is a factor. Being comfortable with how it occurs will help in facilitating conversations.
  • Casual talk has a great impact — Senior managers lose sight of the fact that what they may express casually has a larger impact in an organization than talk from people at other levels. People tend to react when ideas/opinions are expressed because people feel the need to respond due to title/level of the people who shared. This may lead to actions that lack context. HR can shine here by coaching senior managers on the power of their words.
  • Forced behavior — This is the rub. When senior managers want people to be “team players” who are “on the same page” with their beliefs or the candidates they support, you have a problem. It could lead to people feeling pressured, alienated, or stressed. It could lead to questionable ethical behavior, affect your business or even step over a legal boundary. When HR says it wants to play at the senior management level, here is your battleground. HR needs to step in when any forced behavior is attempted and squelch it. It’s not easy, but it will protect everyone in the long run.
  • They set the tone — Senior managers need to realize that they set the tone of the company intentionally or not. It comes with the roles they hold. Help them with some self-awareness around this as a whole. You may want to even consider having training on culture and impact. You could cover the topic of politics in that type of setting without having to isolate it as an issue.

3. What can HR do in the midst of this?

  • Be available and visible — This is a great reason to ditch your desk. Being involved in the conversations that occur throughout your office, plant or location gives you a leg up because you are hearing things first hand. When HR is always in a defensive position, it tends to be reactionary. Close this gap by being with your people.
  • Frame conversations — Instead of allowing people to lose their minds or take sides, help frame conversations and dialogue. We tend to issue policies and procedures when they’re not needed. Be a willing facilitator to step into conversations and help things get framed. It’s a business skill that is needed for HR and management. Emotional levels even out when you take the time to do this.
  • Let folks know what’s acceptable — Here’s a novel idea – give people context and expectations of what’s okay and what’s out of bounds. This doesn’t have to turn into an argument about freedom of speech or expression. Be clear on what is okay and then you take guesswork out of the equation. You also will have something you can refer back to so that you’re consistent in your approach.
  • Allow emotions and conversations — This is uncomfortable for HR people. We tend to think regulating behavior will address employee interactions. It has never worked and never will. We have the opportunity to improve communication by not having topics like this be taboo. Give people permission to be more expressive at work, and be direct with someone if they cross the line. This doesn’t mean discipline, it means interaction. We need to be the group that’s intentionally engaged with our employees.

No one left the Roundtable bruised or slotted towards one political party versus another. It was great to show how forums and conversations can be open and full of healthy dialogue.