From the boardroom to the men’s room; from the chat features of Zoom and Skype to text, employees are engaging in a political jousting of sorts. Unbridled pandemics and ongoing global social injustice protests have changed the rules of political correctness in the workplace. As organizations are declaring their position on racial and social injustice, they have invited more sharing and dialogue among their employees, and with more dialogue come more opportunity for conflict.
Back in the day when offices were inhabited by people, I witnessed a passionate discussion in the staff lounge about the most recent political headlines dominating the news. Something to do with the President of the United States of America having received a “beautiful letter” from one dictator, having declared yet another a “strong and powerful” leader, and then something about repealing Obama Care, just because.
I struggled with whether or not I should have redirected the discussion at the time, noting that this employee on the red side of the debate seemed to take particular exception the facts being provided by her blue counterpart. But in the moment I could not see a clear line between freedom of speech and a hostile work environment. So I took my yogurt from the refrigerator, exited the space and hoped for the best.
Even though our First Amendment right to freedom of speech is protected in public companies and municipalities, it is not protected in most private companies unless your employees, like mine, work in one of the few states where political affiliation is considered a protected class. While a political or diversity discussion among employees can be healthy and informative, when does it become a liability and how can it be managed and measured against one’s constitutional rights to freedom of speech?
As anticipated, within the hour, I had an aggrieved employee in my office “I feel targeted.” There was swirl, tears, and allegation of fake news. An investigation was conducted. At the conclusion, my message to staff was simply this – In matters of discussions, around political or social issues, if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the break room! It’s just that simple. Regardless of whether your employee’s favorite political hero is red, blue, white, black, or even orange, here are some tips to share towards maintaining a cohesive, safe, and productive environment for all:
First and foremost, promote a culture of respect from the top down
Whether an employee resides in a C-suite or the reception desk, beliefs and values are visceral, and we are all entitled to them. Encourage respectful exchanges of beliefs without fear or intimidation. An environment where employees are allowed to share without fear of reprisal encourages crucial conversation, which is key to a progressive organization.
Proceed with caution
Know your team. Political and social discussions can be risky. An employee who is disciplined or terminated may attach the action to an unrelated comment or opinion that has been previously shared in the heat of a political or racial discussion, “I feel targeted.” While sharing openly can be the first step to engagement, remember that what you share may not be as important as how you share it.
Know when enough is enough, then redirect and facilitate
A more employers are striving for create environments of open dialogue, sharing of experiences, and respectful debate, stress the acknowledgement of social cues and knowing when someone is emotionally triggered or impacted. There is no need to be aggressive or mean spirited, It’s about what’s happening in the world, that includes your organization. Do not hesitate to redirect any discussion that becomes aggressive, disrespectful, or threatening.
Review your policies for consistency
As we approach an election during one of the most racially and politically charged periods in our American history, reiterate your policies around the use of electronic communications, harassment, cultural sensitivity, and even dress code. While a “Make America Great Again” t-shirt and sequined hat may be fashion to some, it may send a completely different message to other employees and customers, even when video conferencing from home.
Remember your role as HR Leader
You have a responsibility to provide a safe comfortable environment, even remotely. The First Amendment does not exempt employers from creating guidelines and boundaries for employees to adhere with respect to political and social discussions. Political, racial or social discussion in the workplace are no more politically incorrect than a discussion about fantasy football when supported by a base of respect, inclusiveness and sensitivity, all of which are characterizations of a progressive organization.
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