Management: Talking Politics


A wise person once advised: Never discuss money, politics or religion in polite company. Obviously, the goal is to avoid conflict with those who have a differing opinion. Refraining from these discussions can not only prevent arguments and preserve relationships but also help people keep their jobs.

Today, the U.S. is in the midst of a growing political divide with Americans more polarized than ever on issues including the economy, immigration, international relations, social issues, COVID-19 and many others. In the U.K., the debate over Brexit has polarized politics among the British, but a Pew Research Center study conducted before the pandemic found that Americans were more ideologically divided than 19 other publics surveyed. 

A month before the 2020 presidential election, roughly nine-in-10 registered voters on both sides of the political aisle were concerned that a victory by the other side would irrevocably harm the U.S., according to Pew Research. 

As this passion continues to rise, it has boiled over into the workplace becoming an issue that business owners and human resource professionals are working to address.

The problem seems to be gaining steam, but it is not really new, says Claudia St. John, president of Affinity HR Group, PPAI’s human resources partner. “This issue came up during the Charlottesville riots, it came up in 2016—it seems like a new issue, but it’s a perennial one.” 

For companies dealing with political talk in the workplace or looking to stem any potential problems, St. John offers this reminder. “Employees believe they have a First Amendment right to free speech in the workplace—and they don’t. An employer is within his or her right to say there are certain codes of conduct we accept and those that we don’t accept. As always, starting with a conversation is helpful before you roll out a formal, HR policy. A lot of managers think that if the company has a policy, they won’t have to deal with it—but you always have to deal with it.”

She says an important fact to remind employees about is this one: “Very rarely do we ever change people’s minds with this type of [political] conversation. Recognize that in this moment in time in the U.S. we are 100-percent divided in our perspective, at least based on the election results. There are two tribes and just as many people in each. You are likely to be talking, working and interacting with someone whose political views are starkly different from your own. And your conversation with them is unlikely to change their views. So, having that conversation is just an opportunity to disagree, not to inform.” 

St. John recommends that business owners have a conversation with their workers, employees and managers, and say, “We need to respect each other’s views. We know those views are starkly different, so to engage in this conversation it needs to be a process of being open and listening to the other person and, where possible, to find things you agree on—not things you disagree on.” That’s the tone to have around this conversation but, in the end, companies have the right to prohibit political conversations in the workplace, she says.

However, the challenge is that people may not view their conversations as political in nature. “For example, somebody might start a conversation on an issue of public policy regarding riots. A riot may be one person’s view of creative expression, but another person’s view of vandalism,” she adds. 

St. John says businesses can put in place a process or a policy addressing appropriate conversations and prohibiting wearing t-shirts, hats, emblems and such that are political in nature at work. The policy can also state that ignoring these policies can subject employees to disciplinary action, up to and including termination. 

While heated conversations most often seem to happen among employees, they can also rise up between employees and clients. An employee’s views do not represent the views of their company. Therefore, St. John says a company’s policy can also state that to engage with clients and customers in political discussions is inappropriate and is also subject to the disciplinary process.  

“There is no upside to talking politics with customers,” says Sue Kinch, MAS, owner of supplier Tangico in Pontiac, Michigan. “Even if we think we agree with the customer, political conversations have a high probability of damaging relationships that would otherwise be productive and collaborative.” She advises her sales team to use their conversational agility to build a reputation of being calm and professional, and offers these phrases to reframe or redirect political conversations if they come up in client calls:

“All of my customers have opinions, and political discussions are so emotionally charged that I am drained. It would be a favor to me if we can focus on ...”

“The pandemic, combined with the political climate, has taken a toll on all of us. I am compartmentalizing and focusing on how I can best help my customers. Let’s talk about your business ...”

“I hear what you’re saying, but I really want to hear more specifically about your business ...”

“I appreciate your concise insight. Some of my customers drone on and on so much we never get to take care of their business needs. Shall we get to work?”

“I don’t think any two people will 100-percent agree on every political topic so I’m for common ground and getting back to business. Let’s talk about your business and how I can help.”

Kinch says that if none of the above responses sound like you, to simply replace them with words you are comfortable saying. “Like everything else, conversational agility takes a little practice. Knowing how to gracefully reframe or redirect conversations will serve you well,” she adds.

Pete Gleason, MAS, vice president sales at Erie, Pennsylvania, supplier CPS / Keystone Line (Custom Plastic Specialties LLC), has also had to address this problem among employees in the workplace. “In the past, I have experienced someone who felt the need to turn every meeting into a political discussion. In my situation, I found ignoring it helped quiet it down.” 

For those managers who are dealing with situations in which clients are involved, he suggests creating a company policy stating that the company discourages political conversations with customers and, if ignored, to move to a written warning for the employee. 

Dan Townes, president of supplier Shepenco in Shelbyville, Tennessee, hasn’t dealt with the issue at his company, but says he’d take similar action if needed. He recommends sitting down with the employee, with another employee as a witness, and explaining that this action is against the conduct of the company and reflects negatively on it. He says he would follow that up with a written warning and add, “… Should this type of activity continue, and further complaints/mentions are received, then other actions up to and including dismissal could occur.”

There’s no arguing that emotions are high right now—even in the workplace—and some may wonder if things will ever cool down. Doris Kerns Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian, public speaker and best-selling author, recently addressed that concern in a TV interview. She explained that history shows us that during the Civil War, the Great Depression, WWI and WWII, the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy and the Kent State shootings in 1970—in all of these moments in time, citizens of the day have always wondered, ‘Is this it?’ ‘Can we, as a nation, survive this?’ We always have,” she said.   


Can I, as an employer, require my employees to get a vaccine for COVID-19?

Claudia St. John, president of Affinity HR Group, says yes, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently advised that employers are within their rights to require a COVID vaccine as a condition of employment. “Employers must, however, provide reasonable accommodation for those who cannot take the vaccine due either to a medical condition or a sincerely held religious belief as provided under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act," she says.

“At this point, our recommendation to employers is to start with a positive, voluntary program before wading into the challenges posed by mandating the vaccine. Of course, we encourage employers to seek our advice or the advice of legal counsel before moving forward with a vaccination policy.”

Read more on the EEOC site at this link:


Tina Berres Filipski is editor of PPB.

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