Politics and respect at work in election season

The cracks can start to show in interactions at work

Politics and respect at work in election season

By Sara Forte  - a BC-based Employment Lawyer with Forte Law and Founder of StandUp Teams™.

While the water cooler may have gone virtual to zoom, WhatsApp or slack, elections are still a hot topic for workplace discussions, and employers need to pay attention. At the moment, we find ourselves in a bizarre triangle of the US election, a BC election and of course the pandemic. Many of us, especially if we are working remotely, spend all day looking at screens and are bombarded with media pumping out election coverage. People are stressed about the economy, about their kids going back to school and when.will.this.ever.end. We are ready to crack.

The cracks can start to show in interactions at work. Politics draw out strongly held beliefs and differences of opinion. Those differences are intensified by the role of government in leading us through the pandemic. Employers need to listen closely to make sure workplace communications stay respectful, now more than ever. This might seem like an impossible task, with many teams scattered in the wind to their guest rooms or dining tables, but workplace conflict can have disastrous results for companies already in financial distress.

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One aspect of the BC Human Rights Code that receives little attention is the fact it protects against discrimination on the basis of political beliefs. This protection is similar to those many are familiar with, for example, religion, race or disability. Discrimination occurs when an employee experiences negative consequences or treatment at work due to a protected ground, like political belief.  That does not mean that politics can’t be discussed at work, but it has to be done respectfully. Employers must provide a workplace free from discrimination and can be held responsible - even if they did not know the discrimination was taking place.

In a time when employers cannot monitor every zoom call or messenger chat, now more than ever the role of bystanders in the organization is crucial in protecting a culture of respect. Peers are much more likely to witness, or be confided in about, disrespect at work, including discrimination based on political belief.  Whether these bystanders remain silent or take action can make the difference between a culture of respect at work, and a situation where the employer ends up defending a human rights complaint.

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To be active bystanders, your team members need to understand that disrespectful communications, including about political beliefs, are not allowed. Bystander training is one way to give them the skills and confidence to speak up, and to know they have the organization’s support to take action. Leadership from the top is always critical for any cultural change to take place – managers need to model respectful communications. Management also needs to be ready to deal with complaints about respect at work promptly and appropriately.

In the words of Dr. Bonnie Henry: be kind, be calm, and be safe during this election season - and set the stage for your team to do the same.

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