How to handle politics in the workplace

This content is sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management.

You likely know that talking about politics at work has traditionally been considered a professional no-no. In recent years, however, it’s become clear that many employees in the United States are no longer interested in separating their work life from issues that are personally important to them.

In fact, political debates at work have become commonplace, with a Society for Human Resource Management survey reporting that 42 percent of Americans have personally experienced political disagreements at work.

While a healthy debate may be beneficial, contentious arguments tend to detract from work and professional relationships.

A lack of civil discourse

So, is talking about politics at work really so bad? After all, most people are just trying to make their voices heard, as they stand up for issues that are important to them.

Unfortunately, more than a third of workplaces are not inclusive when it comes to differing perspectives, according to SHRM research, with 12 percent of people saying they’ve experienced bias against them because of their political affiliations.

And toxic work environments aren’t something to be taken lightly. When people don’t feel safe expressing their opinions (or even existing with them), they may choose to leave in search of greener — or more politically aligned — pastures. That can hurt your company’s bottom line, as turnover costs U.S. companies about $223 billion every year, according to SHRM.

On the other hand, employees stay and flourish in environments where they feel safe, heard, and like they are contributing. Managers and other business leaders cannot ensure that type of environment by forbidding political discussions.

“Companies can’t, and shouldn’t try to, quash these conversations because — contrary to popular belief — they’re already happening,” SHRM president and CEO Johnny Taylor said in a news release. “But what they can do is create inclusive cultures of civility where difference isn’t a disruption.”

Embracing differences and allowing them to coexist can increase diversity and tolerance, traits any business could benefit from.

The findings suggest that political topics — like race, sex and gender — are a dimension of diversity that workplace cultures should include and embrace by facilitating civil conversations,” according to an SHRM news release.

So, how do you facilitate political discussions to ensure they are peaceful exchanges?

Train leaders to guide discussions

It’s important to get in front of any concerns before they turn into problems.

“Companies need to be proactive, not reactive,” Taylor said. “We’re talking about hot-button issues that fire people up, so it’s important to put up ‘guardrails’ when facilitating constructive, inclusive environments where employees can disagree without being disagreeable.”

You can provide training to employees, so they learn how to start a chain reaction of respectful discussion, with the help of the Society for Human Resource Management.

SHRM creates better workplaces where employers and employees thrive together. As the voice of all things work, workers, and the workplace, SHRM is the foremost expert, convener and thought leader on issues impacting today’s evolving workplaces. With 300,000+ HR and business executive members in 165 countries, SHRM impacts the lives of more than 115 million workers and families globally. Learn more at SHRM.org.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up