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Getting past campaign strife: HR can help heal rifts

by Tammy Binford

Finally, it’s over. With the passing of Election Day, campaign ads have died down but emotions can still run high. If coworkers have engaged in heated political discussions at work, those passions can be counterproductive to the mission of the business.

So the question for HR is “What now?” What can HR do to heal wounds that have built up over the long campaign? People who once worked harmoniously may have had disagreements about political candidates and issues, and those disagreements may have led to contempt for colleagues who once were admired. Clearly it’s time for damage control.

Beth N. Carvin, CEO of Nobscot Corp., which focuses on exit interview software and retention management, has some advice for HR professionals struggling to get employees past lingering bitterness. First, she says it’s important to recognize any problem within the organization. “Things may have been said that are not easily forgotten,” she says. “People who may have respected each other’s abilities on the job may have lost respect for each other.”

After determining the extent of the issue, HR needs to decide on a course of action. Carvin suggests setting a goal of having rifts healed by inauguration day. One step to take is to put out word that all campaign paraphernalia needs to be removed from employees’ work spaces and common areas.

Also, let employees know that they shouldn’t be debating political differences any further at work, Carvin suggests. Make clear that disciplinary action will be taken if it continues. She says HR may need to remind managers “to be keeping their ear to the ground” so that problems can be dealt with promptly. If there are instigators, managers may want to meet with them individually to remind them why it’s not a good idea to keep disagreements going. Managers may even ask the instigators for help in cooling tempers.

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Building bridges
The post-election season also may be prime time for teambuilding. Joint activities “can build some bridges,” Carvin says. If the workplace climate is extremely divisive, though, the teambuilding needs to go beyond fun and really focus on work.

Maybe putting together task forces focusing on innovation or some other need within the organization can take employees’ minds off hurt feelings and get everyone working toward the same goal, Carvin says. “Focus on the common challenges and excitement for the future. Focus on the positives of working together.”

If the organization has a particularly charismatic senior leader, some kind of companywide communication describing a shared vision of the future of the organization can create a winning team, Carvin says. The fact that the post-election season comes on the eve of a new year can encourage people to think of how to move forward.

“A great senior leader has a way of pulling people together,” Carvin says. “Find out who that is and get them on board.”

The post-election season also can be a great time to promote a mentoring program, Carvin says. By building connections between employees of different backgrounds, employees can get to know each other beyond the stereotypes of their political positions.

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Looking ahead
The post-election season can be a time to think about the lessons learned during this election with an eye toward preventing the same problems next time. If the workplace has seen damage from the election, HR may need to create policies that limit political signs and buttons and promote a focus on work during work time.

“Obviously when people are on their own time, you don’t want to limit the political process,” Carvin says. “Employees are people off the job, but when they’re in the office it’s the workplace and the focus should be on work.”

It’s “sticky from an HR standpoint,” Carvin says, but political views aren’t a protected class. “The problem is when you have these discussions, it’s easy for them to get blown out of proportion,” she says, and it’s fine to remind employees of that.

It’s also wise to remind employees that when they get angry and vocal about their views at work, they’re not going to change anyone’s mind. Instead, they’re just venting their own emotions. Also, they’re likely to hurt their career.

“When the damage is done, it is very hard for it to heal,” Carvin says. She once had a boss she considered very knowledgeable in the field. When election season came around, he started “spouting away.” She disagreed with his views, and “all this respect that I had for him started to disappear.”

Learn from the past
If the atmosphere in a workplace is particularly divisive, Carvin suggests using exit interviews to assess the damage. Look at exit interviews and see if a politically charged workplace has contributed to turnover. Those numbers can then be taken to senior management.

No matter how much damage has been done, progress is possible if the employees can get focused on a common goal. “It’s not easy,” Carvin says. “It will take some time.”