Politics and the Workplace: Tips for Diffusing Heated Debates

In a country that is deeply divided on a wide variety of social issues, it comes as no surprise that politics are playing a large role in workplace arguments. Business leaders turn to their HR partners for help with easing the tension, and HR professionals are tasked with balancing the needs of the business against staff members’ self-expression. These tips can help you navigate the sensitive situations you encounter when diffusing politically fueled debates among coworkers.

Be Proactive

Whether your employees support different candidates during an election year or they disagree on topics currently dominating news cycles, you can be sure that sooner or later, conversations will get heated. The best defense is to set expectations for professional, respectful behavior early and often. If you don’t already have a policy in your employee handbook for code of conduct, get one written and approved by your legal advisors as soon as possible.

Include critical points, such as “Employees are expected to demonstrate courteous, respectful conduct towards customers, colleagues and leaders.” Follow up with examples of the sort of conduct that will not be tolerated. For example, “Employees must refrain from using foul language.” Such a policy ensures each staff member understands how professional behavior is defined in your company, and it gives you solid ground when addressing individuals who take their political debates too far.

Address the Incident

When an incident does occur, tempers might be high in the heat of the moment. If the employees involved in the debate are too agitated to have a professional conversation, send them to separate areas for a break⏤or in extreme cases, they may be required to leave for the day. Once the participants are ready for a calm discussion, next steps depend on the severity of the situation.

A debate that got overly spirited but didn’t cross the line into personal attacks can be resolved with a coaching conversation. Explain to staff members that there are important issues being discussed nationwide, and you support their passion for being engaged and involved in the political process. However, in a place of business, such debates are disruptive to the work environment. State that business needs require personal conversations to be kept to a minimum, and above all, respectful behavior must prevail in every interaction.

For more serious incidents, the same conversation is warranted. However, you may need to go a step further. Consider formal disciplinary action for individuals who make personal attacks, use raised voices or otherwise violate your code of conduct. Ensure that documentation clearly indicates that the issue is the employee’s behavior, not the employee’s point of view.

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