It's time to talk about politics at work

It's time to talk about politics at work
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For decades, conventional business wisdom has held that employees should check their political opinions at the door. And, for decades, employees generally complied, constructing an invisible wall between the world and the workplace that kept politics out.

Those days are over.

Society is divided — we all know that. But what’s being ignored is how these divisions are disrupting American workplaces. And with the U.S. Senate preparing for an impeachment trial and a contentious 2020 election on the horizon, this problem will likely turn from bad to worse.

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Nearly 60 percent of American workers say workplace political debates have become more common in the past four years, according to a new SHRM survey, and 42 percent say they’ve argued about politics at work. Not just talked about it — argued.

Escalating political discussion at work is a recipe for toxicity. More than one-third of American workers say their workplace is not inclusive of differing political perspectives, and 12 percent have personally experienced political affiliation bias.

Workplace leaders don’t know how to manage this new norm. Some have tried and failed, because they’re ignoring the real problem.

For instance, take Google. Earlier this year, the company announced a ban on talking politics at work. I’m sure this was well intentioned, but employees saw this move as an attempt to muzzle employee activism and suppress political expression.

Whether we like it or not, discussions about politics are happening in the workplace. Silencing employees is no solution — and may make matters worse. Working Americans spend about as much time with their colleagues as they do with their family at home. Their true selves are going to show up at work at some point.

Politics itself is not the issue

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The issue is not politics itself, but the absence of respect and civility, along with the tacit acceptance of bias against those with differing political affiliations.

No good people manager would tolerate an employee castigating another employee because of sex, race or age — so why would it be okay to do so because of political preference?

It’s time that political differences be embraced as another dimension of diversity.

Instead of discouraging political discussion, we need to encourage civil, constructive dialogue, providing workplace leaders with the skills they need to manage conflicts when they arise. 

If workplaces continue to ignore this problem, or inadequately address it, the consequences will hurt both employers and employees.

No one wants to put up with a toxic workplace culture anymore, and they don’t have to, when low unemployment means the best talent can easily move to greener pastures — and CEOs know it. In the past five years, nearly 1 in 5 American workers have quit a job due to toxic workplace culture — costing U.S. companies $223 billion in turnover.

We need better-trained workplace leaders

People managers are on the front lines of political battles in the workplace. And if managers can’t handle an issue, it escalates to HR, but by then, it’s already too late. The incident has already impacted employees and affected the culture.

Bottom line: We need better managers.

Companies need to prioritize developing and skilling up managers to prepare them for the people issues of today, including fostering civility when employees disagree. After all, this is part of the manager’s role — providing employees guidance and solving problems.

So, can better managers end all disagreements? Of course not. But they can show employees how good people can disagree without being disagreeable. When people managers have these skills, workplaces will be better for it. Society will be better for it.

Given the high costs of bad culture, organizations simply can’t afford to ignore the political discussions occurring at work.

Granted, this may be easier said than done. But in this challenge lies an opportunity for American workplaces to inspire a divided world, to show that civility still exists and to remind us all that we have the power to choose to trust and connect with the people around us — even when we disagree.

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., is President and CEO of SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management), an association committed to creating better workplaces where employers and employees thrive together. Mr. Taylor's career spans over 20 years as a lawyer, human resources executive and CEO in both the not-for-profit and for-profit space. He is a member of the U.S. Department of Commerce's American Workforce Policy Advisory Board and Chair of the President's Advisory Board on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He also served as President and Chief Executive Officer of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund. He is co-author of The Trouble with HR: An Insider's Guide to Finding and Keeping the Best People.