Managing Election Year Politics in the Workplace

Discussing Politics At Work

Not long from now, the US will face one of the most divisive presidential elections in its history, and despite the fact that many Americans are now working from home, toxic behavior involving campaign rhetoric can still make its way into your workspaces, deeply impacting your team’s current and future harmony and productivity. CNBC Make It reporter Abigail Johnson Hess has written on this very topic, and in this episode, she'll help us to better understand this concern. Here, she'll explain:

  • Recent study statistics regarding political conversations in the workplace;
  • What's at stake for companies; 
  • How to tell if your workplace has a "political" problem; and 
  • Ways you can minimize the effect of the election year campaigns in your workplace!
Discussing Politics At Work

Abigail Johnson Hess

   CNBC Make It Reporter

“This will not all just disappear on November 4th. Politics are going to continue to impact every people's everyday lives. I think there's an opportunity here to use this time to think about how do we, as an organization, like to handle these issues - and I think it'll pay off, not only through the election, but after."

If you prefer to read along while you listen, we've done all the hard work for you! We listened back to this episode and took notes below, and access is free! 

Politics and the Workplace

  • We spend a lot of time thinking about workplaces and we spend a lot of time at work. Politics shapes many aspects of our lives.
  • In November of 2019, a survey from the Society of Human Resources found that 42% of U.S. employees have personally had a political disagreement at work.
  • In February, 2020 a Glass Door survey found that 57% of workers have talked about politics while on the job.
  • Ms. Hess wrote an article earlier this year that reported on a new Gartner study on politics in the workplace, which found that 78% of people talk about politics at work, and that 47% of people say that the upcoming 2020 presidential election has affected their ability to get work done.


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Other Factors at Play

  • There have been reports of recent increases in things such as hate crimes and hateful language on the basis of race, gender, national origin, religion, etc. - in fact, a recent FBI report found that hate crime violence was at a 16-year high.
  • Making the distinction between political discussions and hateful language and actions is as important as ever.
  • Workers have been given a lot to deal with in 2020, and people have begun to become desensitized to some really difficult subjects.

Politics, Social Media and the Workplace

  • The Case of Juli Briskman
    • Was photographed “flipping off” President Donald Trump's motorcade in 2017
    • Photo went viral, she informed her HR department she was the one in the photo, and she went on to be fired.
    • Briskman would go on to run for office, and win.
    • Ms. Hess followed this story in a series of articles for CNBC.
  • What you bring onto social media can and will impact your job, and can add complications to the political discussions and opinions at work

A Politically “Heated” Workplace

  • Three general categories of what’s at stake:
    • Health of your workplace culture
    • Stress
    • Productivity
  • Political disagreements can lead to employees avoiding each other.
  • Remote Workers are impacted as well:
    • Some people may find it more difficult to communicate when working remotely.
    • You have to be careful about how your tone comes across in written communications and when meeting virtually.
    • Remote Workers are more likely to be spending more time with people who share similar opinions, and their lack of proximity to others with differing political opinions can lead to more heated disagreements.

How To Tell If Your Workplace Has a Political Problem

  • Begin by making sure there’s infrastructure in place in order to find out if there are problems in the workplace - people need to be able to raise concerns without fear of retribution to avoid a “toxic” workplace.
  • Proactively check in with employees to make sure that they feel supported and are being heard. 
  • If you uncover issues, speak with the “problem” employees and express why their behavior is causing a problem.
  • Remember that people are capable of changing and growing!

Minimizing the Effect of the Campaign on our Workplaces

  • To this end, there are three suggested “plans of attack”:
    • Ban political conversations on the clock. This is clear in its intentions, but may be somewhat unrealistic in its results;
    • Provide training on how workers can have healthy and respectful political conversations. This, of course, still leaves open the opportunity for people to say disrespectful things. 
    • Host intentional, guided conversations to allow workers to express themselves. This can feel clunky or inorganic, and participation can be thin, but it opens up the workplace to some really healthy, respectful conversations.
  • One of the ingredients to a healthy workplace: People should feel as if they can bring their “full self” to work, and that includes their political thoughts and opinions.
  • Ultimately, employers should:
    • Make sure people are respectful; and
    • Make sure people are cognizant of those who may not want to engage in political conversations.

HR Professionals: How to Minimize the Effect of the Election  

  • Repeating those three “what’s at stake” categories from above, Human Resources should:
    • Maintain a healthy workplace culture;
    • Take steps to minimize employee stress;
    • Keep an eye on productivity by paying close attention to team management and how your employees interact and work together.
  • Know that these same rules apply to remote workers, with an emphasis on discussing what it takes to be respectful when working remotely. 
  • Employee Handbooks can and should include some guidelines to ensure that workplace political discussion remains respectful.

Leaders - Do They Need to Check Themselves?  

  • Absolutely -- often, these cultural aspects will trickle down to the rest of the organization, and leaders have the opportunity to lead by example.
  • When current events threaten to impact your workforce, discuss it with your employees to set the tone in a respectful manner!

Nonverbal Expressions

  • Workplaces have the right to set their own policies regarding pins, t-shirts, bumperstickers, and other campaign paraphernalia. 
  • The more thoughtful you can be about these policies, the better.

Post Election

  • These issues will not just disappear on November 4th.
  • Now is an opportunity to figure out how organizations handle these issues moving forward.

CNBC Make It

  • CNBC Make It is a part of CNBC’s newsroom that has a specific mission to make people smarter about how they make, spend, and save their money.
  • They provide a wealth of resources for employees, employers and HR professionals.
  • Ms. Hess’ work focuses on the changing ways people learn and work.

Abigail Johnson Hess Backstory

  • Bachelor’s Degree in Media Arts and Sciences and Political Science from Wellesley College
  • Ms. Hess has previously worked at Amazon conducting independent research projects on emerging social media platforms, 270 Strategies generating digital, email, and social media campaigns for political and corporate consulting firms, and Third Bridge Group as a Project Manager.
  • She currently works as a Careers Reporter with CNBC Make It, and she is also the voice of CNBC’s Suddenly Obsessed.


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