HR best practices in handling political discussion at work

File pic: Workplace

MANAGING political discussions in the workplace is a tricky balancing act.

Politics and political discussions are everywhere these days and talking politics at work is inevitable, especially during this election year of 2023. Talking politics at work is never a good idea, given the harm it does to interpersonal relationships, productivity, performance and the overall culture. This article will explore why and how to navigate the turbulent waters of handling political conversations at work and human resources (HR)’s role in maintaining calm political environment at workplaces.

Avoiding political discussions at work

To be able to achieve the business objectives and a conducive work environment, the workplace needs to be a neutral space wherein all the organisational members are focused on the same goals. Conversations related to politics can be disruptive to a harmonious, positive work environment. HR services must take steps to prevent such discussions. When left unmanaged, politics often becomes the fodder for discussion among employees.

In the period just before or after an election, this is more so. Talking politics in the workplace distracts employees from the commonly shared goals and hampers the common purpose of the organisation. It is the responsibility of efficient HR to avoid political discussion among employees in the workplace.

Should one talk about politics or the political party they like at Work?

Talking about politics at work is a tricky business. Politics is very personal, and we tend to hold our beliefs extremely strongly, hence it is something that should be on individual level. Politics is one of those topics that attracts strong emotions, the stakes are high and opinions vary, hence including such discussion at work can cause unnecessary tensions because of variations in views.

Limit employee political activities that have an impact on the workplace. The employer can do this by implementing rules prohibiting various activities, such as political campaigning during business hours. Also, enforce dress code and attendance policies, consistent with past practice (e.g, don’t allow workers to wear campaign T-shirts or buttons). Doing so could spark political arguments or complaints that the employer is favouring one candidate or another.

Put a formal policy in place

While larger companies are more likely to have official policies than small businesses, half of employees who have been subjected to uncomfortable political discussions at work believe their employer should have policies that address political issues. This policy should be documented in employee handbooks. This way, the rules are transparent and accessible to everyone. Examples of what you can ban in your policy may include conversations between employees on work premises about the political side one supports as well as soliciting or campaigning at work premises.

HR should also make sure that in that policy issues such as sending emails of political nature, on company computers and using a company email address to other employees, customers or industry partners wearing political or campaign attire is prohibited.

Organisational messaging from leadership

It is also important to consider a message to all employees from the chief executive officer or head of human resources that acknowledges the challenges of the election and encourages employees to take the high road. This will clearly demonstrate an organisation’s commitment to a culture of mutual respect that emphasises the importance of corporate values. HR managers must also encourage managers or supervisors throughout the organisation to reiterate leadership messaging by acknowledging feelings and passions that may be running high at a particular time.

Reiterating core values and company policies regarding harassment and bullying is also important because this will remind workers of the importance of not allowing political differences to disrupt the workplace.

Prohibit use of company property for political purposes

While you cannot necessarily eliminate political discussions at the workplace, you can help limit political tools that can negatively impact your business. Company equipment includes items such as bulletin boards, copy machines, telephones and computer systems.

 Employers who wish to control the use of company computer systems, including email, must have and regularly enforce an electronic communication policy that warns employees that the computer systems are company property and they regulates the type of discussion that takes place on a computer system.

This way an employer can limit the political discourse that takes place on its computer systems through an electronics communication policy.

Political activities away from work

Your boss can prohibit certain activities and speeches at work, but they cannot control what you do during non-working hours. However, that does not mean you cannot be fired for your extracurricular activities. And it’s usually not the act of going to an event that gets people in trouble; it is what they say which can affect the company’s reputation. An employer must be careful when regulating an employee’s off duty conduct. In general, before considering a policy or practice that regulates an employee’s off-duty political speech, an employer must determine whether there is a legitimate business reason to limit the conduct.

Examples of a legitimate business activity might include the company’s reputation, disruption to the workplace and employee morale or potential legal liability to the employer because of the conduct outside work.

Politics affects many facets of people’s lives. These include the salaries that people earn and the taxes they remit. As such, workers have become more involved in political discourses and activities. If not checked, political involvement in extreme may be polarising. That is why you need to take decisive actions to ensure political discourses at the workplace remain respectful and within acceptable boundaries.

When elections are around the corner, an outright ban on political discussion at the workplace may be unwarranted as well as impractical in most businesses. Doing so may likely lead to employee resentment over the level of “control” exercised by the employer. Employers have the responsibility to enforce workplace rules, promote cooperation, insist on civility and respect, and most of all, remind employees that they are on one team, which is their workplace.

  • Emmanuel Zvada is an award winning global hr practitioner and the managing consultant for 3rdeye Africa Consulting Group Zimbabwe and Namibia and writes here in his own capacity. For comments inbox or call +263771467441

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