Below are thoughts from Susan Heathfield, a management and organization development consultant who specializes in human resource issues and management development. Susan is also a professional facilitator, speaker, trainer and writer. She is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD). Susan contributes regularly to professional publications including a book chapter for ASTD and a recent article in the American Society for Quality’s Journal for Quality and Participation.
Midway through a recent job interview the candidate began discussing his political opinions. While I ardently disagree with his opinion – and his job candidacy had already soured for other reasons – I was startled by the impropriety of his political discussion in a work setting. Especially in an interview situation, his lack of judgment sent a clear message to me about his common sense and his ability to help lead the organization. Not satisfied with his initial sally into no-man’s politics land, he went on to tell me how he had recently voted and about the political bumper stickers he had seen in the company parking lot. At this point, the interview turned into a casual chat until I ushered him out of my office. I don’t care who he supports in his politics, but political discussion is normally unwise in any work setting. This candidate failed to exercise good judgment as he spouted his political views during an interview, of all places.
In a workplace that honors diversity, every person’s politics, religious beliefs, sexual activities and opinions about non-work issues, should for the most part, stay home. Unless you work in a setting that is dependent on a particular set of beliefs, such as a Republican Party field office, an environmental lobby group or a church, you risk much more than you can hope to gain when you raise sensitive issues at work. At best you risk offending co-workers whose help you need to accomplish work. In the worst case scenario, you may create a hostile work environment and potential long-term hard feelings among co-workers.
The Supervisor’s Role
As a manager or supervisor, if you become aware of political or other discussion, ribbing or name calling, you need to deal with it as you would any other potentially negative situation that can escalate into conflict among people. Don’t ignore the political discussion. It won’t stop on its own and will likely escalate unless you give staff members a friendly reminder. • Recognize that you walk a fine line between allowing your employees freedom of expression and managing a potential source of conflict.
Casual discussion during the work day, when it does not interfere with work, is crucial for developing work relationships. Positive work relationships are essential for positive employee morale and employee retention. In fact, having a best friend at work, according to research by the Gallup organization, is essential for retention.
If you are concerned that political and/or other sensitive issue discussions are getting out of hand, manage the potential conflict before it escalates.
- Provide feedback to remind people that political discussion that potentially harms interpersonal relationships, belongs outside the workplace.
- Communicate the difference between expressing personal beliefs – which should be acceptable, although often unwise at work – and attacking the beliefs of others – which is not acceptable. I am not generally a fan of many policies and believe you can handle most situations on a case-by-case basis with your adult employees.
- In some workplaces, you may want to consider the adoption of a policy that bans the display of political, religious and other articles, slogans or objects that could potentially create conflict among your employees. Proponents of this type of policy believe the employer has an obligation to control sources of conflict at work. Read Reducing Sources of Conflict at Work Just Makes Sense for additional information about this viewpoint.
- Make sure your harassment policies and harassment complaint system are posted and that employees are trained in the process.
- Use progressive discipline if an employee repeatedly attacks or scorns political, religious or other deeply held beliefs of co-workers.
- Provide respect and dignity behavioral training to all employees and emphasize respect for different ideas, beliefs and needs.
- Make sure your Code of Conduct clearly spells out the need to honor diverse opinions, beliefs, values and goals.
Freedom of expression is good in the workplace, especially if you want a workplace environment that honors diversity, seeks divergent ideas, allows room for respectful disagreement and fosters continuous improvement. Watch to make sure that the discussion of politics, religion and differing beliefs does not escalate into workplace conflict and hurt feelings.
The EAP (Employee Assistance Program) is always available, not only to individual employees, but also to leaders and your entire organization. Please call us with any issues you may like input on.
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