Culture

When political disputes arise at work, HR can listen first and then make policy clear, HR experts say

In increasingly polarized times, how should HR handle political disputes between employees?
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Francis Scialabba / Dianna "Mick" McDougall

· 5 min read

In June, when the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, ending the constitutional right to abortion in the United States after 49 years, LinkedIn was flooded with an outpouring of dismay, as corporate leaders spoke out against the decision.

“Feeling heartbroken today,” Holly Maloney, managing director at the venture capital firm General Catalyst, wrote. “Today is a rough day in the US, really rough,” echoed Chelsea Hunersen, a social media manager at the experience management software maker Qualtrics.

Many workers want to be employed by an organization with corporate values that align with their own, and leaders often make public statements of solidarity with social movements. Employees talk politics at work, too: Of over 52,000 workers across 44 countries and territories queried in PwC’s 2022 Hopes and Fears Survey, 65% said they discuss political and social issues with work colleagues frequently or sometimes, but only 30% said they believe their companies provide support to help them “work effectively with people who share different views.”

This can leave HR with the task of brokering compromise and making peace between employees who openly—and sometimes contentiously—disagree about politics at work. Accomplishing that might require conversations with employees who find themselves butting heads with colleagues, intervening when situations get heated, setting clear workplace boundaries, and a clear distillation of corporate values, according to HR practitioners who spoke with HR Brew.

Nothing new. In an increasingly polarized society, political disputes between workers can fester and bubble up, especially in election years. Kayla Moncayo, a senior manager of global people operations at an international tech firm, recalled to HR Brew one situation at a former employer. Moncayo said: “When the 2008 election was happening, there was somebody who had a toilet paper roll with Obama’s face on it sitting in their cubicle. And it really pissed people off.” She talked to the employee: “I told him that I cared about any human being’s face on a [toilet paper] roll, as did colleagues that brought it to my attention,” in addition to asking “what he would want me to do if he saw something he didn’t like in another person’s cube.” After that, the employee removed the paraphernalia from his desk, Moncayo explained.

Amber Warren, director of HR at Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice, recalled the 2020 election creating a “really volatile” atmosphere at a former company, with one particular lunchtime debate “escalating and getting heated.”

Even though the political waters churn more during election cycles, HR has always been aware of politics as a potential breeding ground for conflict. “We’ve been tackling this my whole career,” Moncayo said. Now, however, with corporations taking public stances on political matters, it creates an environment where “people standing on either end of the spectrum are demanding to know where everybody else stands.”

The dynamic can pose difficulties, especially if employees decide to share “stances very publicly in Slack channels, or even in their email signatures, or on LinkedIn…that can make people uncomfortable in so many ways,” Moncayo said.

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HR = Human Regulators? A best practice for HR pros contending with a rhetorical melee between red and blue employees? “Sit down and talk with both [employees] individually to understand the intent…what agenda do you have here?” Moncayo advised.

If an employee has been provoking others, for example, it’s important to ask that person clarifying questions about their intent, whether or not you—the HR manager—personally agree with their beliefs, she said. “It’s important to give them the space regardless of how I feel about that, or even the stance that company has taken on [an issue].”

Then, you might ask questions like: “Do you feel stifled here? In what way? Did you feel it was appropriate to make other people uncomfortable?”

HR consultancy Mineral helps companies navigate this thorny area. In its guidance on handling political disputes shared with HR Brew, it advises HR leaders to “make it clear you’re in no way interested in limiting their political actions outside of work, but it’s important in the office to consider diverse views.”

When it comes to freedom of speech, employment lawyer Abby M. Warren wrote for the National Law Review last year that “there is no right to free speech in private workplaces since the First Amendment of the US Constitution does not apply to private sector employers. However, such rights may be granted under state laws, which vary greatly.”

Values can help. “Value systems can be seen in a lot of organizations as just things that people say—or something that we wrote down years ago—and then we don’t revisit it again,” Warren told HR Brew.

Repeatedly instilling a sense of company values can go a long way in dissolving lingering political tension in the office, she explained. “We don’t tolerate bullying, we don’t tolerate a lack of humanity in the workplace. We can kind of talk around those topics, without having to specifically address that issue…That’s kind of a workaround that we employ.”

As for the fallout from the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling, some employers are offering travel expenses or reimbursement for employees in need of out-of-state care, despite potential future legal challenges that could make such offerings fraught for many HR departments.

“Our workforce is demanding more of us than ever before,” Moncayo said. “And HR is one of the many pioneers in trying to make their organizations a culture that can maintain and handle these types of pressures.”—SB

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @SammBlum on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Sam for his number on Signal.

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.