How to handle political conflict in the workplace around Election Day

If done right, HR leaders can use political discourse to protect and build on company culture.
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4 min read

No matter what side of the aisle you’re on, Election Day and the days that follow can be a source of anxiety or tension in the workplace.

Not only can political disagreements drain productivity and create conflict, but Stephen M. Paskoff, founder and president of workplace training company ELI and former EEOC attorney, told HR Brew that they can also fray relationships and even lead to turnover. And the risk doesn’t disappear when the polls close.

“The day after the election, it’s going to be accelerated,” he said. “There are going to be a lot of people who are elated…Some of them are going to be enraged, feeling that the election was stolen or lost or taken away from them.”

But by setting expectations, communicating policies, and connecting employees, HR departments can prepare for and prevent conflict.

Don’t ignore it. Politics is one of the issues that Americans have the most difficulty finding common ground on, according to The Dialogue Project, a research consortium that seeks to understand political sentiment and polarization.

“Think of it as a diversity and inclusion issue,” Paskoff said, emphasizing that elections can be a test of a company’s values and the extent to which they are encouraged and practiced.

“There’s some incentive in my view for employers to think carefully about making clear to everybody that maybe work isn’t the best place to have intense political or social discussions,” Randy Coffey, partner at Fisher Phillips, told HR Dive before the 2020 election.

How HR can help. Sending a memo or message to employees that clearly states company values and policies around respectful behavior is a simple step that can help set employee expectations.

When it comes to political speech, Coffey said “very little” is protected in the workplace. HR can set up a policy limiting most political discussion, he added, as long as it’s applied without any bias.

In addition to disseminating information about the risks associated with political disagreements, HR should offer managers guidance around conflict resolution and encourage messaging around unity.

“Encourage managers throughout your organization to reiterate the CEO’s message by acknowledging the anxiety many people feel and recognizing that passions are running high at this time,” Bob Feldman, vice chair at communications consultancy ICF Next, wrote in Harvard Business Review before the 2020 election.

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“Leaders at all levels” can acknowledge that political disagreements are natural, Paskoff said. “But here at work, we all are on the same team. We’re not like political parties. We care about what we do, we care about results. And we’ve got to work together and give each other the chance to do our best work.”

This is when values like respect and inclusion “should mean something,” Paskoff explained.

Building connections. Despite what you might see on social media, it is possible to have a discussion where two people respectfully exchange differing views. In some instances, it is even possible to learn from others during a conversation, without crossing any lines or making people feel unwelcome or uncomfortable at work.

Paskoff recommended that HR teams consider what talking about political differences will accomplish, and, if appropriate, create forums for those conversations, ideally away from workstations. General Mills, for example, has hosted since 2016 what it calls Courageous Conversations, during which employees listen to keynote speakers and participate in forum-style discussions facilitated by company volunteers on topics such as #MeToo and former NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s take-a-knee protest.

And don’t forget about remote and hybrid teams. These challenges still exist, Paskoff said, and are perhaps more complex.

“These rules apply virtually. They don’t just apply face to face. They apply in [texts], emails, voicemails, and I do think people should be careful about what they put on social media,” he said.

Whether a midterm or presidential election, the same rules should apply, and HR should expect tensions to run high.

“I think it’s been amplified by ongoing disputes arising from a couple of years ago,” Paskoff said. “It just seems to me it feels a lot…different.”—AK

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Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.