Heated debates over this year’s presidential election can spill into the workplace — affecting both traditional and contingent workers.
More than half of US workers said office discussions about the presidential election can get heated and offend others, according to a poll by staffing firm Robert Half International Inc.
“We’ve really never seen anything like this, where it’s permeating so many workplaces and catching a lot of people by surprise,” said Philippe Weiss, managing director of law firm Seyfarth Shaw’s compliance services and training subsidiary, Seyfarth Shaw at Work.
The media, including social media, can create an echo chamber that reinforces and hardens views. People aren’t always able to shut those down when coming to work.
Traditional, full-time workers can often read each other’s patterns because they’ve worked together for years and avoid taking a conversation too far, Weiss said. But contingent workers likely are not historically part of the workplace culture, potentially leading to misunderstanding.
In one example, a contingent worker at a small to midsize insurance firm tried to start a political conversion in a lunchroom. The problem: Staff at the company considered the lunchroom a safe place where talk of politics was avoided. They didn’t take the bait and engage in a political conversation, but the contingent felt the conversation was fair and was left feeling the other workers were being stiff.
Yet political discussion, and especially in this election season, can cause stress for many.
An American Psychological Association survey found that 52% of US adults said the election is a very or somewhat significant source of stress. The survey included 3,511 people.
“We’re seeing that it doesn’t matter whether you’re registered as a Democrat or Republican — US adults say they are experiencing significant stress from the current election,” said Lynn Bufka, the association’s executive director for practice research and policy, in a statement with the survey’s release earlier this month.
Millennials and matures may feel the stress more than Gen Xers. The survey found 56% of millennials and 59% of matures reported the election as a very or somewhat significant source of stress compared to 45% of Gen Xers.
On the other hand, millennials may be more willing to talk about it. The Robert Half study found that only 48% of millennials agreed that political discussions at work could get heated and offend others. That compares to 61% of those in older age groups.
Politics at Work
The First Amendment for free speech does not constrain private employers, said Janette Levey Frisch, attorney and founder of The EmpLAWyerologist Firm.
However, employers should also consider how much of a problem discussions are causing, especially since the election is only a few weeks away. “Give some thought, how much of a problem is this really causing in the workplace,” Frisch said. Are the conversations inflammatory? Are they distracting from work?
If there is a problem with a temporary agency worker, a good path to solving the problem would be for client companies to work with their staffing firm contacts to get the problem solved rather than a knee-jerk reaction on their own, she said.
Firms might also be careful when it comes to creating an overarching policy covering political discussion in the workplace. Such policies might be overkill, and Frisch said such policies can also run the risk of being found discriminatory if they disproportionately impact people in a protected class. Existing anti-harassment or anti-bullying policies can often be used if situations get out of hand.
Weiss from Seyfarth Shaw at Work also said companies don’t necessarily need to have a distinct policy on political discussion at work, as such policies are often complex and can’t always be applied as easily as people might think. Instead, he said companies can often look to their existing policies and codes such as a respect/harassment policy that cover issues including national origin or gender comments that have come up during debates on presidential politics. Similarly, a dress code can address campaign clothing and buttons, and a non-solicitation policy can cover acceptable postings.
Managers should also check on workers and be trained to diplomatically redirect dialog or pull somebody out of a conversation if it looks like a discussion will get out of hand.
“You want to be strategic in using a ‘deft re-direct approach,’ you want to engage before it escalates,” Weiss said. Conversations can be redirected in a way that doesn’t disagree or agree but moves the conversation back to business.
Weiss warns that managers should exercise caution, as contingent workers may eventually become full-time employees. If a manager makes a statement during a heated political debate, it could be referenced as part of a later discrimination lawsuit if, for example, the worker is hired and then loses his or her job or isn’t promoted in the future.