Many American companies, particularly small businesses, are facing a crisis of corporate culture. Conversations around the water cooler are getting a little heated across the nation, and just because you haven’t heard anything yet doesn’t necessarily mean your company may not have a problem. After all, very few employees are comfortable talking politics with their boss.
The election of 2016 lasted nearly 600 days, by certain measures, and was highly contentious. The coverage by news organizations of all stripes was nearly continuous, and with the proliferation of news via social media, it was impossible to escape.
Political news hasn’t let up since the election either and it has saturated into seemingly every aspect of daily life, making political conversations harder to avoid. That’s a problem, because it runs afoul of the old adage that you should never discuss politics or religion in polite conversation, if you want it to stay that way.
When it comes to politics, people have deeply-held convictions, and may get upset if they are challenged in a way that is less than tactful. This is difficult enough with regular conversation, but in a work environment, it can be disastrous, and businesses are bearing the brunt of the fallout when co-workers argue.
“I don’t know what happened in the last six months in America,” said Michael Letizia, the former director of the California chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management. “Somehow, it is no longer okay to agree to disagree; now you’re either right or you’re wrong. In the two weeks following the election, there was a huge uptick in employee altercations.” Now, Letizia provides management advice as a business consultant, and his phone has been ringing off the hook, mostly from small businesses.
Co-workers who have developed strong disagreements will avoid each other. While it may not go to the childish extreme of ‘not talking to one another,’ employees need to actively work together for a company to prosper. “I think there’s already been a hit to productivity, just in the last six months,” he said. “Employers want to know how to bridge the divide and get workers to focus back on their jobs.”
If you have to discuss a political topic with employees, it’s a chance to lead by example. Be respectful and keep the peace and your employees are more likely to follow suit. According to the results of Georgetown University researcher Christine Porath, 25 percent of the time that workers engage in uncivil behavior, it’s because their leaders do.
Probably the best way to manage this thorny subject is to avoid it entirely. Perhaps you call everyone in and make it clear that your company is apolitical, and you expect them all to respect each other’s beliefs. “Personally, I suggest that political conversation should be off-limits,” said Letizia.