Office politics may be something we all talk about, but in an election year, the expression takes on a whole new meaning. Strong opinions and reasonable criticisms (about candidates and issues) can cause employees to polarize. Even employees who are typically even-tempered may find themselves involved in tense discussion, or worse.
Friendly conversation about current events can descend into heated debates. Clashing opinions between employees at different levels of the organization can lead to feelings of insubordination or intimidation. Social media posts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram now bring colleagues into awareness of each other’s political leanings, even if not openly disclosed in the office.
Worse still, consider your most forceful and opinionated staff. Might they engage in political conversations with the intent of persuading others to (or away from) a candidate or issue? “Politics is not the art of the possible,” John Kenneth Galbraith, a famous economist, once said. “It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable.” This sticky decision certainly is not the best setup for positive discourse in the workplace.
The side effects of pushy politics at work
What happens when any of these tense situations gives way to repeat interactions? Things become far more complicated. While some staff may successfully stay out of the fray or fervently refuse to share their opinions, others may feel pushed, challenged, or bullied by these politically charged interactions.
Although we might hope that all of this will blow-over, hurt feelings don’t go away. Unsettling interactions aren’t forgotten. Badgering opinions from an opposing side remain front-of-mind, even in unrelated circumstances, such as important business meetings.
These ongoing office politics threaten to derail a business, as they undermine morale, hinder teamwork, and damage productivity. They may even lead to more troubling (and potentially litigious) behaviors—all of which are sure to linger far beyond Election Day.
The best strategy for keeping these office politics at bay is to get in front of them, plan ahead, set clear boundaries, and remind the team of their common goals and strengths.
Tactics to keep the team unified among polarizing points of view
- Review your company policy on social or political behaviors at work. This may also overlap with your policies on diversity. Are there policies addressing the display or demonstration of affiliations or parties? A revision of this policy may be in order. Set clear boundaries on what is, and is not, acceptable at work.
- Determine what constitutes acceptable company behavior, stick to it, and communicate it regularly (especially around election time). Some thoughts to consider:
- If friendly debate and conversation is allowed, is it limited to lunch and break rooms?
- Can a person post their affiliation in their office, cubicle, or social media pages?
- Is staff allowed to congregate or campaign on company grounds?
- How does title and role play a part in determining what a person can or cannot say?
- Consult your corporate attorney. While First Amendment rights were created to establish political freedom, the workplace is not public property and is not necessarily the appropriate forum for enacting those rights. What steps can you take to realign the team?
- Engage your staff. Be clear with all staff about the company’s position regarding these political actions and conversations. Create a clear path for staff to follow should any concerns arise. Be specific about rules and consequences. Remind them that politics is not about forcing our stringent opinions on others; it’s about pursuing what we believe in, while keeping an open mind.
- Create a space for employees to use their voices positively and constructively. This could mean setting up a few lunch-and-learn sessions, where employees can volunteer to lead a discussion that reflects different opinions on political matters in a controlled environment. Be encouraging about the importance of using our voices not to tear others down, but to participate in the one action for change we all can participate in, regardless of side: voting.
- Be Consistent. Nothing is more troubling or will lead to more discord than allowing some individuals to express their beliefs freely, while others are held accountable. This is especially true if the rules seem to favor a certain individual, a particular rank within the company, or a given political party.
- Reestablish the peace after the election. No matter what policies are in place, personal interest and feelings get involved when it comes to politics. Whether an employee is on cloud nine because their initiative or party “won,” or someone is disappointed because their side took a hit, it is vital to communicate the vision and strength of the team as a whole. Remind employees that, regardless of their affiliation, the TEAM still has a unified goal. Your company is at its best when staff commits to be a part of this supportive and collaborative work environment.