What Should You Do When Employees Engage in Political Debates?

Office politics are literally more political than ever as employees discuss the upcoming election.

This is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes — because it’s not hard to imagine Donald Trump leading us into a war just because somebody got under his very thin skin.”

–  Hillary Clinton

“Bad performance by Crooked Hillary Clinton! Reading poorly from the teleprompter! She doesn’t even look presidential!” 

–  Donald Trump

office politicsAmerican political discourse is getting ugly.  We began to see it in the vice presidential debate four years ago—the snickering, sneering, and verbal eviscerations.The       new formula for winning elections is to get     the electorate fired up, taking sides, quoting,  and debating, especially on social media.     But Facebook fights are spilling over into the office and the rhetoric is getting so inflamed, the water cooler could be spilled over.

“Passions and tensions are high this primary season, especially with the Republican and Democratic candidates so different, and worldwide current events impacting policy positions and rhetoric” said John A. Challenger, CEO of of outplacement company Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. “Political discussion is the hallmark of a free society, but when the debate enters the workplace, it can create some significant problems.”

Challenger’s company published a survey in April that found 94 percent of respondents (HR executives) have witnessed political discussions in the workplace. More surprisingly, 91 percent revealed that they participate in workplace political discussions. In politics, this would be akin to the legislative and judicial branches violating their own laws.

Fortunately, the survey reveals that 64 percent of respondents described these interactions as mostly congenial and respectful. So far. But if the presumptive nominees’ opening salvos are any indication, the candidates have just begun to test their artillery. The electorate—including your staff—is sure to follow.

84 percent of companies don’t have a formal policy about political discussions in the workplace, and that may be sensible. Employees would object to censorship, and many would wrongly assume First Amendment protections of their speech. However, there are two things you can do to protect your staff and contain the water in the cooler:

1. Establish an expectation of civility. Set an example as a manager by respecting your peers’ political views and engaging in sober dialogues, using appropriate restraint in political discussions. Consider having a formal meeting with your staff on the subject. Suggest that employees steer clear of political discussions. Make it clear that if these discussions occur, boundaries will be enforced and disagreements that affect workplace relationships will be dealt with by HR. Provide examples of how tense political discussions could erupt into harassment if unchecked.

2. If there is going to be any political discussion, encourage face-to-face, rather than digital interactions. Surprised? Witnesses to an exchange can keep the discourse from becoming overheated. People are also generally more inhibited in person than they are through digital media, and they’re cognizant that not everyone listening will agree. Witnesses to these conversations serve as a “check” against the verbal “power” one employee might exercise against another.

If worse comes to worse in your office, as it did in the Biden-Ryan debate, we’ve got just one more suggestion. Use the inevitable fireworks from this season’s coming presidential debates as negative examples in video presentations about diplomacy in the workplace. After all, it behooves us as Americans to set expectations for how our leaders should behave.

Have you had experience moderating political debates in your office? Share what you learned with us on Facebook.