HR Query

HR Query: Keeping it Professional—Strategies for Discussing Elections in the Workplace            

The election is in full swing with Trump vs Biden head-to-head. But what does this mean for workplaces? New data found that employees and leaders are on completely different pages when it comes to political conversations at work. Amidst polarized workforces, tension in trust, and urgency to speak up, employees are dissatisfied with how leaders are tackling election conversations. 

Although nearly half of leaders say they lay out an action plan and execute it when navigating political issues, only 26% of employees agree, according to the new data. Furthermore, while leaders are in favor of team level talks driven by managers, employees want all-staff level discussions to ensure accountability of management.  

In this week’s HR Query, Jordan Zaslav, COO of Axios HQ, shares insights to help leaders get on the same page as their employees and gain trust, while addressing tough political conversations.

Here’s what he had to say.

How are political discussions impacting workplaces? How has this changed in recent years?

JZ: Each election cycle brings up sensitive issues, and we have to know it’s going to put employees on edge. Who’s going to lead our nation? What policies and protections might change because of it?

  • That impact is bigger than a lot of leaders realize. Gartner found 60% of employees said the 2020 election impacted their ability to get work done. It makes sense, but it’s massive.
  • Now that we know that leaders have a chance to get ahead of it this time around.

Over the last few years, the workforce has gotten a lot broader. We have 4-5 generations at work, and their values and expectations can be different. Gen Z’s political and social activism might push a leader for more transparency, authenticity, and action. Older generations might lean toward wanting to be politically neutral at work. And there are exceptions on all sides. Leaders need to decide what issues are relevant to their mission and vision, prepare where they plan to speak up and where they don’t, and feel confident carrying that out when the time comes. 

Why are employees and leaders on different pages when it comes to political discourse at work?

JZ: Leaders and employees may be generally aligned on which topics are important to address, but most employees aren’t happy with how leaders are addressing those topics at work. New research from Axios HQ dug into that misalignment:

  • 48% of leaders say they lay out an action plan and execute it when navigating political issues. Only 26% of employees agree.
  • 45% of leaders say they proactively engage in difficult topics. Only 23% of employees agree.
  • Leaders also tend to favor team-level discussions when addressing difficult topics, while employees say they prefer open, internal forums to discuss political and social issues.

It’s hard to be on the same page when you don’t even have the same perception of what’s going on around you. The only way this gets solved is with better communications and clearer expectations.

How should leaders decide when to address the political landscape at work?

JZ: You need to know where your organization’s mission, vision, or values overlap with hot-button issues. Not every organization needs to weigh in on every topic, but teams are much more likely to push for action or expect you to create a conversation when they do.  We hosted a conversation with Jen Psaki — the former White House Press Secretary — that boiled this down really well into three questions executives should consider:

  1. What is your brand? Ensure speaking to the issue aligns with your organization’s goals and mission.
  2. Does the issue conflict with what you’re trying to be known as? If so, you may need to defend your reputation before you lose trust.
  3. Does the issue impact your product, org, or people? If so, it might be worth speaking up so employees know where you stand and how you plan to move forward.

If you decide to act, do it thoughtfully and genuinely. The way you communicate will set the tone for how receptive or uncertain your people ultimately are. 

What strategies can HR professionals implement to prevent conflict in the workforce?

JZ: Organizations that are clear about their values upfront — in recruitment, employee handbooks, staff meetings, and every interaction — will often attract like-minded talent. Diversity and inclusion are key, and values are core. When you have both, you create a safe space for discourse.

Conflict can still arise, of course, but when you start with trust, resolving it is a lot easier. Here are a few tips:

Lean on listening groups. Hear what issues your people care about. Understand how the election could impact their day to day. Prep the resources that will help before they need them.

Define playbooks for when, how, why, and where your organization addresses difficult topics. If you can contain when and where they may arise, you can more productively guide how conversations and — potential — conflicts are executed.

Be proactive about political differences. Acknowledge not everyone will have the same viewpoint. That’s both expected and OK but set a standard for candor and what it looks like to have a cooperative, respectful conversation.

Try conflict management workshops. If your teams need it, help them to hone their skills for navigating disagreement and having productive discourse.

Communication has to be your bedrock — whether it’s having a tough conversation or keeping a pulse on how your people are doing when we get closer to the election. The way you engage with them, listen to them, and lead them will set a tone for how they follow.

What advice do you have for leaders to build trust with employees ahead of addressing political conversations?

JZ: Build it before you need it. It’s impossible to trade in trust and good will that isn’t there, and no matter how comfortable you are having political conversations, you can’t control the impact and the rightful emotions the teams around you may experience because of them. The only experience you can control is the one they have with you — and their willingness to listen and engage, assuming positive intent, or retreat and argue, unsure of where you’re coming from.

Invest in relationships. Create a culture of candor. Develop spaces where people observe respect happening before they are asked to trust and anticipate it will. Lean on the HR and Comms leaders around you for support — they know how to do this best. Then take a deep breath and do your best. If you’ve established trust, you’ll have space to engage and adjust.

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