Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many professionals are finding it harder and harder to separate the professional from the personal. Add to that the stress of an election year during a politically tumultuous time, and in comes a conundrum for working professionals everywhere: Should you (and can you) talk about politics at work?
In 2016, experts said it was tricky business, and that is still true in 2020. A research study from 2003 by Yale University’s Geoffrey L. Cohen looked at group influence on attitude change, proving that many blindly demonstrate allegiance to a policy position when it’s aligned with a political party as opposed to weighing its merits objectively. As the ideological divide becomes more partisan – and local Chicago law enforcement prepares for Election Day unrest – how can Human Resources (HR) teams help navigate politics gracefully?
We spoke with two experts to offer you, our readers, tips to help navigate politics in the workplace during — and after — the 2020 election: Colette Huzinec, SVP & Chief People Officer at SmithBucklin, and Robert S. Rubin, Ph.D., associate dean and professor of management for DePaul University’s Driehaus College of Business.
Aim for a Long-term Approach
Human behavior does not change by having a policy in place, notes Huzinec. However, when thinking long-term, strong policies influence company culture and, ultimately, culture is critical to dealing with politics in the workplace.
“You should be very clear in your employee handbook,” says Huzinec. “At SmithBucklin, we do not have a specific policy about political activism; however, our existing harassment and social media policies play a role in how we navigate political discourse if and when it arises. We also encourage voting through supervisor-related policies around elections.”
Adds Rubin, “Such policies can provide the starting point for aligning your organization’s values and mission within the legal parameters of acceptable behavior. A good policy would include issues regarding what constitutes political speech and its boundaries, limits on public displays of campaign information, and defining political activities.”
Understand Employee Rights
Employees generally want to know how they can safely express their passion about political parties, candidates or policies, and to what extent that expression may violate the law and/or company policies. Illinois law specifically prohibits “employers from discriminating against employees based on party membership or for engaging in election-related speech and political activities.”
Shares Rubin, “HR can help draw boundaries around what is constructive versus destructive under the law.”
Consider the following examples Rubin offers of constructive political activities for an organization:
- Voter and/or civics education
- Non-partisan voter registration activities
- Or, providing forums to hear from all local candidates on the ballot for a particular office.
Alternatively, consider these examples of destructive political activities an organization might engage in:
- Endorsing a candidate
- Soliciting campaign contributions on behalf of a candidate
- Asking employees to take a public stand on a particular political issue.
- And, of course, any activity that would discriminate or create the perception of discrimination against employees who identify with a particular political party or issue.
Even if people aren’t talking about politics in the workplace explicitly. Chances are, they’re turning to social media to share their views. Huzinec recognizes that there is more emotion and passion around political topics these days than she has seen in the past.
“I think social media is tough because so many colleagues are friends with each other,” notes Huzinec. “The lines are very much blurred, which can serve companies really well except when it comes to divisive politics.”
She continues that even if someone is just sharing their opinion, at the end of the day, companies need to be clear in their harassment, discrimination or social media policies so that employees recognize they are representing the company online – especially on social networks like LinkedIn – and it is HR’s responsibility to encourage sound judgement.
Lean In, Don’t Ignore
According to Rubin, “Telling people ‘you can’t talk about politics ever’ is not likely a winning strategy, any more than telling them they can’t talk about anything else. But, just like conversations on race, gender bias and other forms of stereotyping, HR can help build trusting, psychologically safe environments where people aren’t worried about retributions for expressing their deeply held beliefs.”
Intervening in toxic work environments, continues Rubin, starts with managers and teams. While HR policies to support employees who are affected by difficult situations are always helpful, often the most effective solutions come from managers who are expected, as part of their managerial performance, to establish civility norms.
For Huzinec, it all comes back to culture. Over the past several years, she and her team at SmithBucklin have taken care to build an open, safe environment for employees to feel comfortable speaking out, and the company has also actively engaged in politically charged movements by offering support. “We responded to #MeToo by setting up a hotline and email for sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior, and to recent Black Lives Matter protests by hosting internal inclusive conversations,” she says. “It’s the role of the CHRO to acknowledge all aspects of a problem.”
“It’s the role of the CHRO to acknowledge all aspects of a problem.”
Prepare & Train Managers
Organizations are best served by educating their workforce on the potential bias and harmful impact of political ideology, and to play the capacity-building role by teaching and modeling the ways managers can act as facilitators.
“There is a business case for not ignoring emerging issues and sticking with a blanket ‘no politics in the workplace’ approach,” adds Rubin. “Research suggests that political ideology impacts the decisions people make at work, which may or may not be in an organization’s best interest.”
“There is a business case for not ignoring emerging issues and sticking with a blanket ‘no politics in the workplace’ approach.”
“It’s critical that HR help managers and employees draw a distinction between political views and behavior,” he explains. “We don’t punish people for their political view per se but for the behavior for which they engaged. For example, when a manager berates an employee for holding a political view that is different from their own, it’s the act of berating the employee that is of most concern. It’s important this does not get lost lest people think HR or the organization is simply censoring views it finds distasteful.”
A proponent of a “team charter process,” Rubin says the method can help teams establish collective norms and expectations for personal conduct. Under the approach, teams agree to hold each other accountable for civility by clearly spelling out consequences for individuals who violate the collective expectations. Thus, HR can provide training and development resources to managers to promote such activities and create psychologically safe teams that build a culture of trust.
Huzinec agrees, noting, “It’s important to lead by example. You cannot just have a policy and do nothing else. If managers get involved before it gets to HR, that’s when you know you’re during something right.”
It almost doesn’t need to be said that it is important for companies to tread carefully where politics fuse with discourse inside a company’s physical — and virtual — walls. Many organizations, like SmithBucklin, have likely been working to build strong diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives for years. Huzinec shares, “Having the framework, structure and language established such that everyone knows what inclusion means and what it means when you say that you celebrate diversity is important.”
She adds that a strong, DEI-forward culture sets up a work environment that makes it so that employees celebrate and are energized by the fact that they work alongside people of different race, gender, sexual orientation, age, ethnicity, religion, ability, thought and experience. If people can safely voice their perspectives, their issues, and their concerns, worries or frustrations in a constructive way, then you avoid much of the negativity or hurt that can come from political disagreements.
Continues Rubin, HR needs to be alert in order to help business partners understand that job performance and political affiliation are not correlated. “Much like invalid personality measures or labels that might ‘quadrant’ employees, a political view can quickly brand someone as a certain ‘type’ of individual. This quickly leads to mistreatment or differential treatment in often subtle ways. For example, ‘I wouldn’t approach Jordan about this issue. He’s a libertarian and not likely to understand our customers’ needs.’“
Be aware that conversations may be happening long after an election and be careful to engage around said discourse in a way that is mindful, respectful and safe.
Colette Huzinec serves as SmithBucklin’s senior vice president and chief people officer, providing strategic and operational leadership for all human resources functions. Prior to joining SmithBucklin, Colette worked for six years at Accenture as a human performance manager, consulting for Fortune 100 companies. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in psychology and business studies from the University of Leeds in England, and earned designation as a Human Capital Strategist in 2008.
Dr. Robert S. Rubin is an associate dean and professor of management in the Driehaus College of Business, overseeing graduate and executive programs including DePaul University’s Executive M.S. in Human Resources. He is an award-winning teacher specializing in the areas of organizational behavior and human resources management. In addition to his academic work, Bob is an active human resources and organization development consultant to a variety of industries. He received his Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology from Saint Louis University.
Tags: Diversity and Inclusion , Company Culture , HR Policies , Politics , #MeToo , Strategy , DePaul University , Illinois , Office Relationships , SmithBucklin