If the thought of enduring another presidential election while managing politics in the workplace has you agitated, you aren’t alone. The Biden versus Trump campaign, subsequent years of political shenanigans and a pandemic to top it off were unsettling and maybe even traumatic for you. It may have even affected your workplace environment, causing rifts between colleagues, off-topic discussions in meetings and debates that caused lingering damage.
A recent NBC headline reading “Is America ready for a Biden v. Trump sequel?” speaks to the heart of the issue. It’s not a presidential election making us tired; it’s the “culture wars” that come with it. As the election ramps up, it will thrust us back into ongoing issues and conversations such as abortion, LGBTQ+ progress, gun control and much more.
How to handle politics at work during an election
In 2020, almost half of workers reported the election impacted their productivity. So now again, business leaders have a decision to make—will they try to curtail election chatter at the water cooler, in the small-talk minutes before a Zoom meeting and in employee chats? Will they take a public stance on their company’s election position? Might they even make room for election discussion in a formal way in their workplace? As 2023 wraps up and the election year begins, decisions about how to handle politics at work are looming.
“Organizations need long-term plans in place to address the anxiety and stress from election loss, political differences and the impact this has on employee performance and wellbeing,” says Stephanie Bolster McCannon, an organizational psychologist and wellness coach. “When individual values are at stake, emotions run high. Helping each person to recognize common and shared values and assisting workers to focus on these will aid in cooperative relationship building during tumultuous times.”
Here’s how business leaders and managers can be proactive about the upcoming elections and purposefully think through their strategy on managing election-related emotions, conversations and a potential productivity drop.
Say what you want, not what you don’t want
It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that you are running a business, or building a business as an essential team member, even in the face of political climates. To this, McCannon says, you have a “responsibility to productivity.”
“Company policy that works best will be directly tied to company values. Focus on what is wanted, expected and appreciated. Staying on the positive side of values and stating what is wanted reduces resistance and friction,” she says. She uses a simple example from childhood: Tell your kids to walk in the house, don’t say “don’t run.” Similarly, state clearly in positive language what you do want: “We respect all persons.”
For example, if you want to eliminate political talk during work, clearly explain when it is acceptable. John Truong, managing director and attorney at Alliance Compensation & Litigation Lawyers, says his firm takes this approach. “We advise staff to discuss politics respectfully and outside of work hours. We also provide resources for employees to learn about issues and vote. This creates a knowledgeable workforce.” He adds their HR department is ready and willing with an open-door policy to help with disputes or resolution.
Update your policies and procedures
It’s time to bust out that dusty handbook (which is hopefully not in actual book form anymore). Policies and procedures need to include and address the following, McCannon says:
- Zero tolerance
- Safe spaces
- Time off to vote
- How to redirect conversations
- See something, say something
Don’t forget hybrid workers in these conversations, as these policies still apply to etiquette outside the office walls. Those procedures might need to be reframed if you haven’t worked with them since the pandemic or since you implemented hybrid work environments.
Plan your office for stress reduction to prepare for election season
Consuming too much news, political or not, can wear on you or your employees. But you have control over company-wide work climates to an extent. You can build a safe haven for employees where news isn’t constantly in the background.
“News in and of itself is stress-inducing at any time. It is prudent for organizations to have in place a no-news policy during working hours,” McCannon says. “This cuts down on loss of productivity overall and keeps the politics off the TV in the break room while creating a safe zone for all users.”
Managing politics in the workplace doesn’t mean pretending major election events don’t exist. “Account for employee distractions. People tend to get distracted by the stress and excitement of election season, so it’s essential to rework your schedule to account for reduced productivity,” says Hardy Desai, the founder of Supple Digital. “Rather than adding pressure onto stressed-out teammates, you might even shift meetings as far away from Election Day as possible to give employees the time to process their feelings without needing to be ‘on.’ Adjust project timelines accordingly, so employees aren’t facing extra pressures to complete mission-critical work when they’re feeling distracted.”
Crisis-proof your workplace environment ahead of time
You’ve heard of safe spaces—now might be the time to cultivate one. “Organizations like Holonix Leadership & Organization Development specialize in supporting organizations in creating psychologically safe and productive environments,” McCannon says. She recommends team building to find commonalities outside of politics.
“It is vital for all to recognize we have biases, what they are and how they are triggered. Training employees and staff to understand their feelings about other coworkers that stem from ‘I can’t trust them because we disagree’ is normal. Education and training on diversity is particularly helpful and a great reminder on how to maintain respect in the workplace before large news events,” she says.
Some businesses are also preparing for different strategic moves based on election outcomes ahead of time. “We’re reviewing our financial budgets and projecting different scenarios based on each potential election outcome,” says Gillian Dewar, chief financial officer at Crediful. “Since so many factors are unknown until we see what happens post-election, we aren’t making any big moves until we know what we’re facing. But with the best, worst and most-likely scenarios planned, we won’t have to waste time scrambling or making quick decisions without thinking them through. We already have those plans ready to go, so we can move quickly to meet shifting needs.”
Don’t shy away from the tough stuff
This isn’t a time to hide under a rock. Instead, Lindsey Paoli, a corporate mental health consultant in Nevada who helps company leaders prioritize mental health in the workplace, says to face the tough stuff head-on.
“Companies actually do a disservice to themselves and their employees by trying to remain neutral and tight-lipped in an effort to avoid ruffling feathers during times of controversy. Chances are, company leaders are in alignment on their political views and they are leaning in one direction over the other for what is best for their business,” she says. Instead, opt for open and productive conversations and a shared decision-making environment with clear explanations of procedures.
“This actually works for the company at the root in that it helps find and retain employees that are in alignment with the core values of the company, because those values are clearly stated and acted upon on a daily basis, not just during election season,” Paoli adds.
But, she warns, do it with the right intentions. “It’s also important to note that companies that do this well are not doing so in an effort to sway employees who may disagree, but instead by leading with conviction and transparency. Humans are naturally drawn to assertive and decisive leaders, and avoiding controversial and divisive subjects in leadership actually implies weakness that will cause more harm than good in any workplace.”
In the end, developing a positive culture even in an election season starts far before the election. Today is a good time to start.
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