"The Looming Contest Between Two Presidents and Two Americas." - New York Times.
"Trump wants to debate Biden ‘immediately’ — but president shrugs him off" - CNBC.
"'Who the hell does he think he is?': Biden goes after Trump's rhetoric in Nevada" - ABC News.
These are just three headlines from January 2024 as the U.S. 2024 Election enters full swing and the primaries season picks up momentum. Regardless of how each headline makes you feel – happy, angry, curious, frustrated, empowered, apathetic, or even amused – it’s a sign that, as with previous election years, political headlines are set to reach fever pitch.
Political polarization has rising in the U.S. for decades and has accelerated sharply since the turn of the century. Historic data from the NBC News poll finds the values of Democrat and Republican parties and votes have become increasingly divided, including attitudes towards U.S. presidents. This polarization brings greater debate, disagreements, and division into the workplace.
This article could focus specifically on any one politically divisive topic, such as abortion, DE&I, climate change, worker rights, immigration, healthcare, gun laws, global conflict, or drug use. But each of these compounds into the broader challenge facing U.S. employers:
How can we protect our employees from the potential dangers of political disagreement spilling into the workplace?
Debate is inevitable, and banning free speech isn’t the answer
The balance between healthy debate and harmful disagreement is a fine line.
Under HR’s ever-popular dogma of ‘bringing your whole self to work,’ an employee may choose to share their hardest-felt opinions on the political or societal debate du jour. But, particularly when political tensions are high, this can quickly unravel into heated arguments that are unproductive at best and lead to cases of harassment or verbal and physical violence at worst.
The solution, however, is not to impinge on freedom of speech or attempt to ban political discussions at work. Some have tried. In 2021, Basecamp announced a ban on societal and political discussions at work. “Every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant,” explained Jason Fried, CEO. “It’s a major distraction. It saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places.” Techcrunch later reported that this move cost Fried roughly a third of his workforce, who accepted buyouts or quit their role. A similar move from Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong cost him 5% of his workforce.
Arguably, Fried and Armstrong had the right motivations, seeking to prevent political debate from wasting time and causing harm to employees. But blanket bans not only stoke the fire of the freedom of speech discussion, they are also impractical.
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“The concept of freedom of speech is fundamental in the relationship of Americans to the government,” explains Taylor Bradley, Head of HRBPs, L&D, and Compensation at Turing, and a member of CNBC's Workforce Executive Council. “However, employers are free to curtail most speech but should be cautious about restricting freedom of expression.”
“Blanket bans are simply not realistic, especially in this political climate,” adds a confidential Director of Employee Relations at a major U.S. airline. “Employees will be employees, which means that conversations will inevitably occur as the election season heats up. Politics are a major part of our daily life, dominating the media, social media, community engagement (religion, community gatherings), and more.”
Countless studies have found that diversity of thought is a fundamental strategic advantage to organizations, driving business performance among other measures. Of course, when not managed properly, it can be divisive and disruptive. The task for HR and People leaders, therefore, is to ensure the political debates are minimal in their disturbance to day-to-day business activity and conducted with respect and sensitivity, rather than aggression and sensationalism.
“We all should expect a safe work environment,” says Bradley. “The ability to express a difference in opinion highlights the beauty of the freedom to do it. One not granted to everyone in this world. We focus on providing frameworks for team members to successfully navigate natural points of friction and outlets to express any concerns.”
Encouraging polite debate, discouraging heated disagreement
Polite debates frequently turn into heated discussions and arguments. A 2023 E-learning Industry survey found 64% of employees who have discussed politics at work have seen or engaged in politics-based arguments among coworkers. In the short term, this can be upsetting and distracting to employees. In the long term, it prevents workers from coming into the workplace with authenticity and damages longevity and retention.
The same survey found 29% of employees have previously lied about political opinions to feel welcome, and 45% feel revealing their political beliefs could damage promotion opportunities.
In an election year, headlines are inescapable. Watercooler chats about last night’s presidential debate are inevitable. It’s HR’s job to make sure that safe and secure discourse is feasible.
An important first step is to remove the threat of political beliefs or discussions subconsciously impacting management decisions. Identifying and reviewing systemic bias frees employees to express themselves as they wish without fear of harming their careers.
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Secondly, although bans on political expression are out of the window, HR teams should establish clear guidelines and practices on what constitutes healthy debate, and what crosses the line. Just as employees should feel free to express themselves, they should also have the psychological safety that they won’t be attacked based on their political views, background, or link to any of the divisive issues mentioned earlier. All employees should have a clear view of where their organization has drawn this line in the sand.
“Best practices for employers would be to have policies that cover respectful conduct in the workplace, remind employees of these policies are, explain the for violating these policies, and consistently and fairly enforce the policy,” explains the Director of Employee Relations. “That means, for example, not issuing harsher discipline to those who are pro-Trump as opposed to those who are pro-Biden. Even if you, as an HR professional, despise Trump, for example, we still need to ensure that we are being fair, consistent, and equitable in our processes.”
A failure to handle this step properly can put the company at risk for a wrongful termination lawsuit in jurisdictions where political ideology is a protected class. “It’s not a protected class at the federal level, but is in many states and local jurisdictions,” they add.
Lastly, when political conversations do spill into toxic, aggressive, or harmful disagreements, HR must be quick to act.
“If, despite all of that, a potential policy violation occurs, the employer needs to timely, thoroughly, and fairly investigate the alleged issue. As mentioned above, the employer should also take appropriate action (discipline, termination) as spelled out in the policy,” the Director suggests.
But rather than ‘making an example’ of any employee in such a case, HR teams could instead seek to understand why the individual felt validated in turning political disagreement into an attack on their peers. Education, rather than penalization, is the path to a culture where inevitable political debates are peaceful and productive, rather than disruptive and dangerous. Whatever path the company takes, the key is consistency across all incidents, regardless of ideology.