Employees care deeply about abortion; gun control; immigration; the uptick in crime; the homeless situation in Anchorage, climate change, and other issues that affect their freedom, wallets, and quality of life. As a result, even seemingly innocuous comments concerning news events can escalate into bitter, emotionally charged workplace arguments that alienate coworkers and customers, damage relationships, and negatively impact morale.

Here are the facts:

More than half (52 percent) of U.S. employees report that sharing their political opinions with coworkers can harm working relationships and negatively affect team productivity, https://www.hibob.com/blog/politics-at-work/.

Two out of every five employees (40 percent) report feeling negatively toward their boss or coworkers after discussing political views, https://buddypunch.com/blog/handle-political-discussions-workplace/.

One out of every five (20 percent) employees report their coworkers treat them poorly because of their political views, https://www.shrm.org/about-shrm/press-room/press-releases/pages/shrm-study-reveals-20-percent-of-workers-mistreated-due-to-political-views.aspx. Research outlined in ”Fear and Loathing across Party Lines,” https://www.jstor.org/stable/24583091, documents that we’ve become polarized as a nation, split into the “in group” (you think like me) and the “out group,” with those in the “in group” viewing hostile treatment toward those who oppose their beliefs acceptable.

One out of every five employees would consider leaving a workplace in which the majority of their coworkers hold different political views, https://www.zippia.com/advice/survey-talking-politics-at-work/.

What do we as employees and employers need to do?

Some suggest we ban all political discussions.

Good luck with that. We don’t shut off our emotions or our brains when we enter the workplace.

Instead, we need to up our game. Although others in our workplace hold different views, we can respectfully talk with and not at each other. We can’t remain a country in which we avoid differences of opinions because we don’t remember how to exchange ideas without attacking other’s views and each other as people.

Employers need to know the law and can set guardrails.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) gives private sector employees the right to distribute information to support political candidates or viewpoints at work that directly connect to work-related topics such as minimum wage, equal pay, or paid leave. An employee who says, “I’m in favor of this candidate because s/he’ll pass laws to raise wages” has protection for making that statement. The NLRA doesn’t protect employees who cross the line with careless comments regarding sex, race or religion that are discriminatory, harassing or incite violence.

Employers need to protect their employees from political discussions that create a hostile or discriminatory work environment, such as ones that veer into issues of race, national origin, or gender. When an employer learns one of their employees perceives a heated discussion as discriminatory or hostile toward a legally protected group, they need to investigate the situation and, if warranted, issue a reprimand to the harassing employee.

Proactive employer actions

Employers can set limits for the length and volume of discussions they will and will not allow in the workplace and on work time. Employers need to be cautious about implementing “civility” rules, as the National Labor Relations Board has regularly ruled that protected discussions by their very nature may be inflammatory. Instead, they can address problems specifically, such as, “I realize you’re both passionate about your candidates, however, this distracts each of you from customer calls, forcing your coworkers to pick up the slack. Please get back to work.”

Employers can address political discussions that cross the line into hostile attacks and polarized verbal duels in the same way they tackle other forms of inappropriate behavior.

Employers can provide training that teaches employees how to maintain respect and civility when engaged in conflict-laden discussions. They can remind employees of the thirteen categories legally protected against discrimination and harassment in Anchorage (race, age, color, sex, religion, marital status or changes in marital status, pregnancy, disability whether mental or physical, national origin, sexual orientation. and gender identity).

Will challenging political discussions impact your workplace? Yes, and they probably already have.

(c) 2023 Lynne Curry

p.s. You’ll useful material for handling challenging political discussions in “Just in Time;” “the Price You Pay for Avoiding Conflict,” and other chapters in Navigating Conflict: Tools for Difficult Conversations, https://amzn.to/3rCKoWj.

If you love the politics topic, you might enjoy https://workplacecoachblog.com/2019/07/how-to-deal-with-political-discussions-in-the-workplace/; https://workplacecoachblog.com/2016/03/politics-a-demotion-and-a-bosss-bad-habit/; https://workplacecoachblog.com/2020/10/employee-political-dispute-escalates-to-danger-level/; https://workplacecoachblog.com/2020/01/how-to-avoid-political-landmines-in-the-office/, or https://workplacecoachblog.com/2021/02/6-steps-for-healing-our-polarized-divided-country/.

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8 thoughts on “Political Discussions in the Workplace: Strategies for Handling What’s Coming

  1. For the most part I simply avoid these discussions at work. They seem inappropriate to the workplace. On a personal level I actually enjoy engaging in political discussions, including with people whose viewpoints I disagree with, because I’m genuinely curious what their reasoning is for their viewpoint or why they support a political candidate I don’t. It can be enlightening and sometimes will even change my mind about something. But I’ve found many people struggle to keep things civil when a lack of agreement occurs and sometimes will even devolve into ad hominum attacks. To me, that’s never worth it and I will disengage from the discussion immediately if I feel that happening. It’s ok to disagree, not ok (particularly in a work environment) to be disagreeable. I’ve found many people have linked their personal identity so tightly with their political beliefs and/or party that they don’t seem to be able to discuss political beliefs with people on the other side of the political spectrum, which I think is unfortunate because if we can’t talk about it, we miss opportunities to change hearts/minds or to find common ground for compromise.

    1. Dee–your tolerance and curiosity about others’ views are laudable. I agree with you that, too often, ad hominem attacks ensue, and these give no deeper understanding and may result in hurt feelings and damaged work relationships. Long ago, I gave up on the idea of changing hearts and minds in such discussions, but I think the goal of having a better understanding of where people are coming from and how they are affected by various events and policies is a solid one.

    2. Well stated, Dee. And I agree with Susan Dingle’s opening comments to this post.
      But the real loss here is the complete loss of ‘things that can be talked about SAFELY.’ How can people become ‘friends/friendly’ when any little trigger can set off a firestorm?
      We’re being forced to build walls around ourselves to avoid letting the slightest feeling show – because any feeling is possibly at odds with anyone else’s feelings. ANYONE can say this: “Their rights are intruding on my rights!”
      I LOVE to hear other people’s opinions – even when they’re completely opposite of mine. But that’s not a conversation when they are talking about things that are completely absurd, knowingly erroneous, and total B.S. and being foolish enough to engage in a ‘shared experience’ by helping them to understand how flawed or faulty their information is it then fodder for a fight.

      1. Terrific comments. The quality of thoughtful comments by Susan, Dee and you, Dan, on this post reminds me of what I hope to see.

    3. Dee, thanks, and I miss the quality political conversations that once took place in my workplace.

  2. Political discussions at work. Yes, the time has come to discuss how to handle these to minimize damage and poor relations while respecting people’s right to speak. The comments on how an employer’s tack of “civility rules”/policies can backfire and cause trouble with NLRB rulings allowing employees to discuss working conditions are timely ones and important precautions. My last boss told us she didn’t want us discussing religion or politics at work–she stuck to that and held us to that, too. It was probably good idea–these were not working-conditions discussions under another label–because there were almost as many widely varying opinions as workers–6 to 8 of us?–and we weren’t going to change anyone’s mind or probably get a respectful listen on any such monologues. That’s what they often are, too, monologues, diatribes, not discussions with sharing of views and listening to each side. Also, as was implied in the tactful tip on the supervisor’s right and responsibility to tell people to cut short the discussion and get back to serving customers, too often thee discussions are more instead of work than really fitting into work.

    1. Agreed with what you say, Susan, and the “don’t talk” approach can be safe, and yet I hope we can do better.

  3. If there EVER was a multi-faceted subject that consisted of mine fields laid by both sides, and unmapped by each, that required all to traverse it – this is it.
    In my over 55 years of working, I’ve never known the workplace, the workers, or society-in-the-whole to be so completely stressed out and ‘over-the-top’ by so many subjects. Literally nothing is safe for discussion any more because literally everything is ‘charged’ by strong emotions on opposing sides.
    While my statement, “Partisan Politics has Poisoned and Polluted the Political Process to the Point of Paralysis.”, was conceived specifically relative to politics, with a few adjustments it could apply to ALL of the above and below.
    It seems that people can change parties at will; change religions at will; change sexual identities at will; change attitudes at will; own a gun or not, or; change opinions at will. Almost nothing is safely static or universally safe to discuss in society any more. It is now almost impossible to state anything without offending someone. Proof that you cannot appease all at the same time – it is impossible.

    As Dorothy said to Toto – “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.”
    And my 93 year-old neighbor tells me “I think it’s a good time to be 93.”
    Me, I know it’s a good time to be 73, and that it’s close to time all of the infighting and stone-throwing is coming to my door too – it’s not far away.
    The strongest of societies cannot withstand the decline of pride, community, belonging and participation – all of which are being so grossly eroded and diluted by the overwhelming expansion-and-influx of non-contributing people, and degradation of responsibility and contribution of and by too many people.

    And, if this is ‘too political or potentially offensive to too many people’ (it will be a perfect exclamation point for my diatribe) then don’t publish it.

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