'Politics have become so charged, the distance between the two sides is so great,' says academic offering insights, solutions
With the 2024 U.S. presidential election fast approaching, and headlines reporting death threats towards elections workers — plus X (formerly Twitter) preparing to once again allow political ads on its platform — discussions around politics at work could be getting heated in the near future.
HRD spoke with Dr. Sandra Spataro, professor of management at Northern Kentucky University, about how HR can navigate the minefield of talking politics in the workplace as we approach an election year.
“When we use national politics to fuel our office politics, it's about me and mine: ‘I'm going to take care of folks like me,’” Spataro said. “Or it’s who I'm going to look out for, even unconsciously. It's not necessarily bad intent.”
Politics at work can separate employees
Spataro’s study of organizations has revealed that an employee’s fit with the predominant culture of a workplace will ensure them more respect, influence and status. Also, different types of workplaces have different cultures; for example, a consulting firm might value more extroverted employees, while a technical company would tend to value conscientiousness, she says.
With heightened political discourse, this can lead to contentiousness among workers. Spataro says much of this “in group/out group” thought can be unconscious, and therefore very difficult for HR to manage.
“That's the lightning rod right now. It's politics. Years and decades past, it's been different things. But right now, it's about your politics,” Spataro said. “Politics right now have become so charged, the distance between the two sides is so great, that if you're in the other group, it's almost impossible to traverse the other side … it's very hard to see the individual and build individual connections, like real, authentic connections.”
Combat politics at work with intentional inclusivity
To mitigate the atmosphere of exclusion or negativity that politics can breed, Spataro recommends HR leaders intentionally foster inclusivity in the workplace.
The process can start at the point of hire, she says, with specific messaging and language during the interview, such as:
- “Inclusion is very important to us here. It's an important value in our culture. It's important to us that you bring your true self to the workplace.”
- “Can you give me an example of a time when you spoke up, when it wasn't so popular, but it was something that was important to you?”
- “If you don't have an example, tell me a time when you wish you would have, and what you would have done.”
Being intentional about welcoming different viewpoints and experiences is vital, she says, like publicly recognizing an individual who spoke out against the popular view.
“It's about intentionally developing a culture of inclusion,” said Spataro. “Which means whether you're this or that, you're welcome here, or whether your hair is brown or gray, you're welcome here, or whether you come from California or Kentucky – you're welcome here. So not just about one thing, but saying, ‘We want to hear all different views here and we value the person who speaks up, even when it's not popular.’”
Foster workplace connection through healthy competition
Like other forms of discrimination, exclusion based on someone’s politics can show up in subtle ways, Spataro says, such as whose voice is heard, whose report gets passed to the boss, or who gets offered an informal mentorship.
To begin to shift mindsets, she suggests healthy competition as a way to bring a workplace together; for example, HR can use a common rivalry against a competitor, or a health challenge that pits departments against each other. By working with those tendencies to separate into different groups, employers can encourage a more united culture in their organizations.
"We are deeply, deeply enculturated in this country, to ‘My politics are right, your politics are wrong,” Spataro said. “What you can do is try to affect the basis by which we separate ourselves.”