MALATESTINIC: Take proactive steps to minimize political discord in the workplace

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One of my favorite current social media memes says, “Life is short. Make sure you spend as much time as possible on the internet arguing with strangers about politics.”

It’s funny and sad at the same time because there’s so much truth to it. Through the magic of social media, we have the ability to try to impose our opinions on complete strangers, whether they are famous or simply the friend of a friend.

And it’s not just strangers. Follow the comments on a social media post related to politics and you will likely see at least a few bitter arguments among friends and even among family members.

Unfortunately, with the presidential election looming later this year, the situation is likely to get much worse. If you’re like me, the solution will be to avoid Facebook, or at least to skim past any postings that will raise my blood pressure (specifically, those that share inaccurate, unproven or deliberately misleading information—which seem to be most of them).

Although avoiding social media might help relieve our personal stress levels, many co-workers will actually become more engaged during this political season, often arriving at work agitated by whatever flames their favorite pundits are fanning each day. According to a recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, 42% of working Americans have experienced political disagreements in the workplace.

We all have the right to our opinions, but managers might need to intervene when political differences lead to incivility and become a hindrance to teamwork and productivity.

What to do? You could take the extreme approach and proclaim that employees aren’t allowed to discuss politics in the workplace, but that might cause more problems. Some would claim you are infringing on their First Amendment right to free speech, although they would be wrong. The First Amendment protects us from being censored by the government, but not by our employers (for most situations, anyway).

Government employees have more protections in this area, but in most cases, the First Amendment doesn’t apply to private-sector employers, except in cases that involve employees exercising their right to engage in “concerted activity” under the National Labor Relations Act (talking about things like their pay and working conditions).

While employers can win the First Amendment argument, the victory might be costly. In truth, you would probably have made employees feel defensive, leading to even more incivility. And beyond the stress such incivility causes, there is a bottom-line impact.

Harvard Business Review took a poll of more than 800 managers and employees from a variety of industries and found that, of the workers who had experienced incivility, 66% said their performance declined, 48% intentionally decreased their work effort, and 25% admitted to taking their frustrations out on customers. In other words, allowing political differences to create incivility in your workplace will actually cost you money.

Don’t wait until a problem occurs to address the situation. Instead, take a more positive, proactive approach. If you don’t already have a civility policy, consider establishing one. Make it clear to employees that you expect respectful, professional communication, then model that behavior. Make sure your managers do so, as well.

Empower your employees to respectfully say that they prefer not to engage in political discussions. If appropriate, you can prohibit political signs, clothing and other symbols of political affiliation, but make sure you do so before they start popping up. If you wait until it happens, you might appear to be taking a political stand against one side or the other.

Make it clear that your policy is designed to create a more pleasant workplace for all, but at the same time, stress that violations of your civility policy might result in disciplinary action. When problems do occur, make sure you treat infractions in a consistent manner in order to avoid creating the impression that you are favoring one side or the other.

And while there should be consequences for incivility, make sure your policy doesn’t convey intolerance or seem to squelch collegiality or respectful discussions. Many of us spend the majority of our waking hours with our co-workers, and the goal should be to create a positive environment, not one where your employees feel censored or marginalized.

Being proactive in creating an atmosphere that encourages employees to be respectful of one another and tolerant of differences will go a long way toward preventing problems. And it might help keep your personal stress level down, too.•

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Malatestinic is a senior lecturer in human resource management at the IU Kelley School of Business at IUPUI.

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