As the presidential election approaches, it's increasingly likely that employees are going to be discussing politics at work. Is that a problem?
With this fall's presidential election shaping up to be one of the most spirited head-to-head matchups since Tyson vs. Holyfield, it's inevitable that many employees will find it difficult to check their political preferences at the office door.
For people accustomed to voicing their likes and dislikes around the water cooler, the sheer nature of the heated contest between U.S. Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama means it's tempting to talk about the latest debate or political jabs being tossed about.
While some individuals can "agree to disagree" and conduct civil conversations about political matters, others may have a hard time dealing with differences of opinion when it comes to issues they feel passionately about.
That puts HR in a difficult position -- should they ban all political discussions from the workplace or allow employees to talk about whatever's on their minds? Are political discussions inherently detrimental, or can some benefit actually be reaped from allowing -- even encouraging -- employees to engage in debate?
While there's certainly no legal requirement to ban political discussions from the workplace, Peter Susser, partner and chair of the international employment and labor practice group at Littler Mendelson in Washington, says most companies conclude it's in their best interest to try and keep such conversations to a minimum, so employees focus on the work at hand, rather than on the latest polls.
"You really have to be careful if you start this kind of dialogue, because people feel so passionately about politics and tend to get emotionally wrapped up in it," says Dawn Usher, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Silverado Senior Living Inc., in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. "As long as you're not offending anyone or trying to force people to your views, it's OK to have the conversation, but once it becomes intrusive, then it needs to stop."
That approach is right on track, according to Bruce Weinstein, a New York-based corporate consultant and ethics analyst known as The Ethics Guy. He likens talking politics in the workplace to talking about religion or sex -- two topics that are widely recognized as taboo.
"In most workplaces, these subjects not only have nothing to do with the work at hand, but because they're so controversial, engaging in discussions about them may very well impede one's ability to work well with other people," he says.
Specifically, he says, political conversations can open the door to discussions of related topics, such as gay marriage and abortion -- hot-button issues that can fuel tempers and create discord in an otherwise harmonious working relationship.
"Some people will say, 'I can make a distinction between how I feel about an issue and how I treat people,' but we have motivations that are not necessarily apparent to us, so you can't be certain that you wouldn't hold this against someone you're assigned to work on a project with," says Weinstein. "Will you really be able to put your feelings aside and buckle down?"
The vast majority of employees don't appear to be fazed by such concerns. A recent survey of 522 American workers ages 18 and older by Menlo Park, Calif.-based staffing firm Office Team found a whopping 67 percent feel that engaging in political debate in the workplace is acceptable in small doses, as long as it doesn't get too heated. Just 18 percent branded such discussion "inappropriate," while 14 percent said they consider it useful to talk about political issues and engage co-workers in debate.
"People are definitely talking about politics because they find it interesting and, obviously, the outcome affects all of us," says Jennifer Boyd, human resources director for San Mateo, Calif.-based HR software provider SuccessFactors Inc. "There are some issues at the presidential level that we haven't seen before as a country: 'Does age matter? Does race matter?' That's what people talk about."
The unique nature of this year's presidential election -- the country's first major-party African-American contender and the candidates' differences in age -- opens the door for plenty of controversy that could easily make its way into the workplace if HR isn't careful, cautions Susser.
When issues such as race and age enter the conversation, termination becomes a possibility, should employees choose to predicate their arguments on the basis of a protected characteristic.
"It becomes a problem when you have comments that veer into areas of prohibited unlawful communication -- for example, an employee who strenuously objects to the idea of Barack Obama being elected president because [Obama is] African-American, and goes on to communicate related comments about [his or her] views of African-Americans," says Susser. Talk of this sort goes beyond the concept of political expression, and would likely be viewed as discriminatory, she says.
At Atlanta-based Randstad USA, an internal survey undertaken earlier this year found 60 percent of the staffing company's employees are discussing the upcoming presidential election with their co-workers, according to Eric Buntin, managing director. Little difference exists between demographic groups, according to Buntin, who says Randstad encourages "discussion, collaboration and the challenge of ideas and thoughts."
"Whether we like it or not, political conversation is going to take place in the workplace -- both in the workplaces that discourage it and in the workplaces that tolerate it or even encourage it," says P.M. Forni, professor and founder of The Civility Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and author of The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude. "The issue is how we, as individuals, can exercise the good sense and restraint that makes it so that an exchange of ideas does not become problematic for the everyday operations of work."
A Culture of Respect
With more employees engaging in political discussions, the question for many employers has become not whether they allow political talk, but how such conversations are conducted. The act of talking politics is not inherently harmful, according to Ilene Wasserman, founder and principal at ICW Consulting Group in Penn Valley, Pa.
She believes people on opposite ends of the political spectrum can debate their differences without damaging their relationship. After all, she points out, Republican strategist Mary Matalin and Democratic strategist James Carville have been peacefully coexisting as husband and wife for 15 years in spite of their stark political differences.
When it comes to workplace political discussions, HR must ensure that an overriding culture of respect guides all interactions, including those of a political nature. Politically charged conversations are definitely on the rise at SuccessFactors' headquarters, according to Boyd.
While employees revel in the fun and controversy of political debate, she's confident that such discussions won't cross the line because all employees are required to sign a contract in which they agree to specific "Rules of Engagement." Chief among them: "I'll respect other peoples' opinions."
While most organizations have stringent policies banning the use of company technology for non-work purposes -- such as the dissemination of political propaganda -- SuccessFactors maintains an electronic bulletin board on its intranet where employees are encouraged to post information about "a cause or a passion they feel strongly about," says Boyd.
"You have to have an environment where people can express their differences of opinion," she says. "People disagree about things all the time in the workplace. You can't bring it down to whether you can bear to sit next to someone because they believe something different than you believe."
Likewise, for Novi, Mich.-based Trinity Health, the organization's existing "Guiding Behaviors" provide direction for any of the not-for-profit healthcare system's 46,000 full-time employees, should they find themselves pulled into a political discussion. They include: "We trust and assume goodness in intentions" and "We communicate openly, honestly, respectfully and directly," says Debra Canales, the company's chief human resource officer.
"We encourage people to be open to communication as part of being in a professional work environment, regardless of their political views or ideology," she says. "Were those conversations to cross the line, we would take the appropriate action, but so far, we haven't had to limit that or implement any kind of policy, per se."
The same holds true at Fairfield, Conn.-based General Electric Co., which hasn't found it necessary to put any restrictions on political discussion, according to Steve Canale, manager of recruiting and staffing services, who cites "freedom of speech" as the ruling order. He credits employees' professionalism for keeping potentially controversial conversations from devolving into arguments.
"[Employees] are no more likely to get into a heated discussion over politics than they are [over] a baseball game that took place the night before," he says.
Of course, not all employees are likely to behave with such decorum. For that reason, some organizations may find it necessary to teach employees how to handle disagreements without losing their cool, according to Ron McMillan, a Provo, Utah-based business communications and co-author, with Joseph Grenny, of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. McMillan advocates holding actual training sessions in which employees are given the opportunity to learn -- and rehearse -- right and wrong ways to handle potentially thorny confrontations.
Rather than shying away from disagreements, Wasserman suggests companies hold open forums wherein political matters are discussed and debated at work. New York-based Pfizer Inc. is well ahead of the pack in that regard, holding political forums for employees at its various U.S. sites for more than a decade, according to Marc Scarduffa, senior director for worldwide public affairs and policy.
Every other month, the drug company brings in a political speaker -- sometimes an elected official, other times a well-known journalist or pundit, such as Bill Press, Eleanor Clift or Kate O'Beirne.
At times, both a Republican and Democrat are present for a truly bipartisan debate. Speakers are selected by Scarduffa, who sometimes works in conjunction with public affairs liaisons at various Pfizer sites. Depending on how much space has been allocated for the event, the first 100 to 200 employees to express an interest are allowed to attend the one-hour events (the rooms are typically filled to capacity), where the presenter speaks for 20 minutes before fielding questions from the audience.
"We use it as a way to engage our colleagues on political activity," says Scarduffa. "It gets them into politics and registering to vote."
Not surprisingly, the focus of this year's sessions has been the upcoming presidential race. Those who are scheduled to work during the session are granted time off to attend, while those who would not otherwise be present are allowed to come in.
At the company's international headquarters in New York, the forums are dubbed "Pizza and Politics" because they are typically held at noon and feature pizza for those in attendance. At other Pfizer sites, sessions can be held at dinner or breakfast time. According to Scarduffa, it all depends on when the speaker is available.
"If a governor says, 'I can come there at 9 a.m.,' we do it at 9 a.m. If the governor says, 'I can come in at 3 p.m.,' we do it at 3 p.m.," he says. "We accommodate the principals."
Handled correctly, workplace political discussions can actually be beneficial, according to McMillan. Specifically, he says, such conversations can help employees recognize and appreciate differences of opinion, which can result in a healthier workplace culture overall.
"Learning how to discuss politics in a respectful, helpful way immediately transfers to every other disagreement people encounter in the workplace," says McMillan. "As people learn to do this well, they immediately see this could apply to a variety of other situations."