Quick question, which of the following are political in nature: Health insurance, congressional races, police budgets, or photos displayed in your cubicle?
If you answered, “All of them,” we’re guessing you’ve spent some time in the US in recent years. It’s no secret that the nation is extremely polarized, with politics moving to the forefront of almost everything, from traditionally contentious topics to the inane. (We’re looking at you, Goya beans.)
The challenge for HR: Set workplace standards for corporate and employee behavior and speech that could be deemed political. It’s a tough, whack-a-mole job. HR Brew asked employment and labor lawyer Mark Kluger, co-founder of law firm Kluger Healey, for help understanding what falls under the umbrella of political speech. He threw up his hands.
“It’s getting to the point where everything is political. Look what we’re seeing with the pandemic,” Kluger told HR Brew. “Covid is a virus—like, it is literally a disease that you can see on a microscope—and it has somehow created political camps. So it’s very difficult for employers to determine which topics are political and what conversations will cause complaints.”
According to Kluger, employers are under increasing pressure to develop clear policies around politics at work. “The modern corporate structure doesn’t let executives bury their heads in the sand,” Kluger said. “Millennials are the largest group of employees in the workforce today, and they have, to date, pushed the workforce more toward embracing corporate social responsibility and political discussions more than any other generation.”
With the rise of social media, employees have megaphones to call out perceived slights by employers. And they’re doing it—just ask Netflix, Facebook, or Coinbase, which have all faced criticism over their handling of internal political discussions among their employees.
Cut it all out?
If Kluger could have his way, he would save HR the headache and ban anything that looked, smelled, or sounded like politics from work.
“During the 2016 election, I started giving this advice more than any other time in my career, because everything was so polarized,” Kluger said. “If people were debating about Trump at work, employees could very easily say their coworker doesn’t care about gender or is a misogynist, and now all of a sudden, you have a hostile work environment or discrimination complaint on your hands. So my advice is keep politics out of the office entirely.”
Kluger further explained, “There’s very little legal risk to banning political conversation—you don’t have a First Amendment freedom-of-speech right at work, unless you work for the government—but there’s a multitude of risks to allowing political conversations, because it opens employers up to all sorts of discrimination complaints.”
Jeannie Assimos, the head of content and communications at Way.com, agrees.
“In the past, political conversations in the office didn’t seem to be as risky as it is nowadays,” Assimos told HR Brew. “The unofficial policy in [our] office currently is to avoid this topic, as it is likely to make someone uncomfortable, even if they don’t speak up. The polarization in this country is at levels we’ve never seen before, so we avoid it, and I think it’s a more peaceful workplace because of it.
Americans haven’t agreed on anything since “The Dress,” so naturally they’re also divided on if political discussions should happen on the job: A recent Harris Poll/HR Brew survey of American employees found that 43% are uncomfortable with political discussions at work, while 57% are very or somewhat comfortable with political discussions in the workplace.
Heather Welch is in the 43% camp. Welch was a staffing specialist at an e-commerce and digital marketing company when a heated discussion with coworkers about police violence soured her on political conversations at her former workplace.
“Our employees’ Slack channel turned very political. It was sort of an outlier, as we didn’t really talk much about politics during regular days,” Welch explained in an email. “I was up for civil and intellectual discourse, but my coworker suddenly took offense out of the blue and began speaking to me in ad hominem. Our other colleagues were clearly uncomfortable and tried to steer us away by using memes. The said coworker then sent me a private message, and we continued our ‘not-so-friendly discussion’ there. Needless to say, foul words were given that day. We eventually let up but still found not-so-subtle ways to get into each other’s heads.”
Welch didn’t go to HR, but reports relations between the pair were “never the same” and they “never participated in small talk with each other again.”
Welch concluded, “Based on that experience, I’d really wish that politics should never be brought inside the office as it will clearly create a rift among coworkers.”
Ignorance isn’t bliss
Ignoring politics altogether could make it harder for companies to attract new, younger employees. According to a Deloitte global 2021 survey, 44% of millennials and 49% of Gen Zs have made choices over the type of work they are prepared to do and the organizations for which they are willing to work based on their “personal ethics,” meaning that when considering attracting younger talent, employers who focus their policies on political action may want to take generational values into account.
One employee of color at a Minneapolis law firm told HR Brew that he is looking for employment elsewhere due to his company’s refusal to engage with politics.
Bilal, a 25-year-old attorney whose name has been changed so that he could speak freely about his experience at the firm, said that when he asked the managing partner how they planned to respond to the police murder of George Floyd, he recalled the partner saying, “We don’t do anything that alienates clients. We will donate money.”
Bilal views political discussions at work and political behavior as tied up in the broader conversation of identity and corporate social responsibility. “I don’t want to compromise on racial issues,” Bilal said. “That’s not just water-cooler talk about an election or whatever, it’s about who I am and how I’m perceived and treated in this world. I need to know that the company will walk the walk, so to speak.”
Companies have seemingly landed on the shaky ground of publicly commenting on the largest national headlines, while at the same time begging their employees to, Please, keep the debates off Slack channels.
According to shareholder advocacy group As You Sow, roughly 69% of S&P 500 Index companies issued statements in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd; Netflix pledged to donate about $100 million to banks and financial institutions that support Black communities; and Uber, Lyft, and Bumble released statements about Texas’s restrictive new abortion law.
Smaller companies, like JobSage.com, a workplace review site where employees can anonymously review their experiences with employers and is still in beta, recognize that diversity is critical to their mission. Ryan Patterson, cofounder of JobSage, explained that they had to set some standards in their own workplace for decorum to keep conversations from escalating and getting “tribal.”
Patterson told HR Brew, “Based on what we do, we tend to attract a pretty progressive crowd. But just because we’re based in Austin doesn’t mean everyone is liberal or everyone thinks the same way.”
He further explained, “On Slack, there was a silent, but present, conservative presence that was offended by the constant stream of political communications. They felt ganged up on.”
JobSage instituted policies to de-escalate, including allowing workers to leave conversations or have HR facilitate a mediation between employees about uncomfortable political discussions. Patterson feels these policies help keep politics in the workplace with some guardrails.
But, but, but…The idea of workplace “civility” is fast becoming old-fashioned and has historically been used to quiet minority voices, as NPR noted in 2019. Career coach and advocate for women of color Cynthia Pong worries that policies that call for tempered discussion will be selectively applied to employees of color.
“Removing politics from work, or restricting how we talk about politics, is yet another way women of color feel silenced, unheard, marginalized, and policed at work,” Pong told HR Brew. “We should be deeply skeptical of these policies, because they could be coded language used to police people of color in a way that seems race neutral but are actually applied quite selectively.”
As a small, but vocal, minority of Americans quit jobs based on vaccine policies, and the midterm elections creep closer, workplaces will likely get more polarized and political conversations could intensify. HR should grapple with how they want to tackle political discussions now—and realize this is a conversation they will likely revisit and revise continually in the years to come.
Author: Susanna Vogel