Talking politics: How to deal with employee conflict

Should employees be barred from sharing their political opinion in the workplace?

Talking politics: How to deal with employee conflict

In late September, as election season in the US was heading into full swing, tech CEO Brian Armstrong published new company rules banning polemics in his workplace.

Then he did what many other CEOs in a similar situation have avoided altogether: he offered a severance package to any employee who disagreed with his stance.

Political discussions at work are a distraction – but if anybody wants to make politics the core of their work, then they are free to leave, Armstrong told staff at cryptocurrency startup Coinbase.

“We are an intense culture and we are an apolitical culture,” he said. “We won’t debate causes or political candidates internally that are unrelated to work.”

The CEO said the exit offer was meant to be mutually beneficial for the company and the politicised factions of the workforce who wish to “get to a better place” in their career – perhaps one where their politics is central to their professional mission.

“Life is too short to work somewhere that you aren’t excited about, and we’re happy to make that a win-win conversation,” he said.

About 60 employees, or five percent of the staff, have since accepted the offer, and a few more are reportedly in talks to follow suit.

“We’ve seen what internal strife at companies like Google and Facebook can do to productivity, and there are many smaller companies who have had their own challenges here,” Armstrong said.

Read more: Is politics bad for company culture?

Silencing dissent?
While Coinbase is the first company to offer staff an exit strategy, other big names have also been forced to address mounting political tension in recent months.

At Facebook, the rift between employees reached breaking point once that CEO Mark Zuckerberg had to intervene. The incident prompted Zuckerberg to post a stern reminder to staff who were discussing racial injustice and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

“I’m concerned that some people are doing that without appreciating the impact their words are having on our Black community,” Zuckerberg wrote.

“Let me be absolutely clear about our stance as a company: systemic racism is real. It disadvantages and endangers people of colour in America and around the world.”

The political turmoil surfacing in employee forums, both online and offline, have pushed Facebook into enforcing “clear rules and strong moderation” on its internal communications platform.

“We deeply value expression and open discussion, but I don’t believe people working here should have to be confronted with divisive conversations while they’re trying to work,” the CEO said.

Google – once lauded for its open culture – introduced similar community guidelines in 2019 when it discouraged workers from engaging in heated debate.

“While sharing information and ideas with colleagues helps build community, disrupting the workday to have a raging debate over politics or the latest news story does not,” the policy stated.

“Our primary responsibility is to do the work we’ve each been hired to do.”

The rule, however, was meant to “silence dissent,” according to Irene Knapp, a former senior software engineer at Google. “This is the end of the important parts of Google’s open culture.”

“Ultimately, business interests will always win out over ethics in terms of what we’re allowed to say,” Knapp said in a Bloomberg report.

Read more: Compassion or paranoia? What HR can learn from political leaders

How to manage heated discussions over politics
Should employees be barred from sharing their political opinion at work?

There’s a difference between being politically aware and being polemical. The latter is often what causes conversations at work to devolve into a shouting match between opponents.

As seen in cases from Silicon Valley, workplace leaders tend to formulate guidelines regarding political expression based on practicality: once the debate rages on, productivity can suffer.

A Gartner survey supports this: about four in five employees say they engage in political chatter in the workplace (78%), yet nearly half of them get distracted at work (47%).

Because of the politically charged climate of 2020, about a third of respondents:

  • Experience stress / frustration when engaging in political discussions at work (31%)
  • Spend more time looking up political news while working (33%)
  • End up avoiding colleagues because of political differences (36%)

“During times of social and political change, employees expect more conscious action and policy from their organisations,” said Brian Kropp, chief of research in the Gartner HR practice.

“To minimise the negative impacts of politics on the workplace, HR leaders must ensure that employee emotions and behaviours associated with the current political environment don’t distract and disengage the workforce or create a hostile work environment,” he said.

Gartner recommends the following steps to HR leaders:

  • Determine which federal and local laws apply when formulating workplace policies on political expression
  • Stay committed to a culture of diversity and inclusion
  • Train managers to address political conflict:
    • Sense and respond to the need for support
    • Monitor political discussions
    • Model the right behaviours to reduce the likelihood of misconduct

“To ensure employees remain focused and feel safe at work, HR leaders must train managers so they are well-equipped to support employees during the election process and deal with political conflict within their teams,” said Caroline Walsh, vice president in the Gartner HR practice.

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