Learning & Development

Navigating Political Waters: Tips for Managing Political Discussions in the Workplace

In 2024, around the world, more voters will be electing leaders of their countries than in any time in history. The temptation to discuss politics in the workplace will probably be at an all-time high, but these conversations are fraught with peril.

Here are a few ideas from an experienced conflict resolution professional about how to skillfully navigate political conflicts in the workplace.

1. Make it clear that the workplace is not a place for political debate. 

Unless the workplace is a campaign headquarters or a think tank, political discussions are generally inconsistent with the task at hand. Medical professionals should be concerned with patient outcomes; educators, with student success; manufacturers, with efficiency and productivity; and retailers, with sales. When political debate enters the lunchroom or the main office, it’s at the very least a distraction and at worst a recipe for erosion of morale and culture.

The leader’s job is to ensure that people feel free to own their opinions—on their own time. While we enjoy freedom of speech, that right is not unlimited. We’ve all heard that the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee the right to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Nor does it guarantee the right to express political opinions at work.

2. Words matter, but they aren’t all that matters.

Leaders should establish policies regarding language, as well as actions and nonverbal communication. Is it OK to wear a MAGA hat? A BLM pin? An “I’m pro (life/choice)” T-shirt? How about sending emails with political cartoons? Or forwarding news stories to co-workers?

A clear and well-communicated policy will help prevent employees from feeling that the enforcement of norms is an ad hoc, case-by-case, discretionary practice. Procedural rules should be chosen before they are outcome predictive or outcome determinative.

3. If things get really bad, consider outside options.

Great leaders know that there are professionals who can manage and resolve large-scale conflicts. Some naïve and perhaps fearful leaders may think that turning to an outsider is a sign of weakness or an unwelcome invitation to air internal dirty laundry, but the savviest leaders know that it’s a sign of intelligence, experience and strength to bring in heavy hitters when the going gets tough. I might be able to fill out parts of a Form 1040, but if I need to do any complicated calculations, I call a pro. And when a great leader encounters the workplace-conflict equivalent of a tax form, they don’t go it alone.

4. Remember that underneath every action—even the clumsy expression of a political view in the wrong environment—is an interest that may be relatable.

In the workplace, a person who wishes to raise political issues may be expressing insecurity about their own finances, fear for the well-being of a loved one, worry that their rights will be shrunk or some other legitimate concern. 

For leaders who encounter such conversations at work, the goal is not to critique the underlying politics, but rather to focus on the fact that the conversation isn’t appropriate. And if you can go beyond the politics and get to the personal interest, that might give rise to a private conversation about matters that are germane to work. 

When a leader is brave enough to set and enforce policies and procedures fairly and even-handedly, they can encourage people to bring their whole selves to work—and know the line between words and activities that are beneficial to the mission of the organization and those that are best left at home.

Richard Birke is the chief architect of JAMS Pathways and is experienced at resolving complex, multiparty disputes. With over 35 years of hands-on dispute resolution, he draws on experience in a wide range of disciplines, including mediation, psychology, economics, law, communications, negotiation theory, strategic behavior, and diversity, equity and inclusion, to apply the right tools to every client situation. He can be reached at rbirke@jamsadr.com. More information about JAMS Pathways can be found at www.jamspathways.com.

Disclaimer:  The content is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice.  If you require legal or professional advice, please contact an attorney.

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