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Incivility and Political Discussions at Work: Where Politics and the Workplace Collide

Steam coming out of employee's ears
Incivility at Work

So much is being written now about incivility in the workplace that #SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, has now created a “Civility Index” to track and trend how often U.S. workers experience incivility and unethical behavior at work. SHRM’s goal in publishing the index is to “gain a deeper understanding of the state of civility across the U.S. and develop actionable insights that business professionals and organizations can use to promote civility within their workplaces.”  The key takeaway of this new report is:

“More than half of U.S. workers believe our society is uncivil. . . We may not always agree, but we can each be a catalyst for civility—one conversation at a time.”

It’s an inciteful study that reveals how dire this situation has become, both in terms of lowering employee productivity and negatively impacting worker morale.

I’ve written books titled 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees and The First-Time Manager: Leading Through Crisis.  With three decades of senior HR leadership experience under my belt, I know how ugly the workplace can sometimes get. But there’s more to it this time around. . .  Worker angst is higher now in this post-pandemic reintegration period than at any other time that I’ve witnessed in my career to this point. And having served as an independent consultant since 2022, I hear what client companies of different sizes, industries, and geographies are challenged by. It truly is “different this time,” and it’s a healthy exercise for us to explore how we got here and what we can do in our offices and on our shop floors to improve the situation at hand.


Simmering Political Tensions and the Workplace: Navigating Political Discussions at Work  


The list of grievances going into the November 2024 election is long:

·       Lack of job security, inflation, and retirement savings shortfalls.  

·       Global wars on multiple fronts, and the role of the United States in international affairs in general.    

·       Immigration and border control concerns.

·       Women’s lack of access to fertility-related medications and treatment with the fall of Roe and passage of the Dobbs decision.

·       Global warming, climate change, and the devastating impact of escalating tornadoes, hurricanes, and wildfires.

·       Public safety and gun violence, now the leading cause of death among American children and teens.  

·       Racial injustice, especially regarding discrimination and fairness concepts surrounding diversity, inclusion, and belonging.  

·       Concerns about healthcare access and drug prescription costs, especially in regard to dangerous trends in obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cholesterol.  

·       Spiraling mental health needs, especially among the first truly digital generation, the Gen-Z Zoomers (i.e., the 25-and-under crowd, which continues to test out as the loneliest, most isolated, and most depressed generation on the planet).

·       Fentanyl-laced street drugs, a powerful synthetic opioid analgesic that is similar to morphine but 50 to 100 times more potent, spiking deaths among casual, recreational drug users.  

·       Cybersecurity and other risks to privacy and data protection.

The rising costs of education, food scarcity, threats to gay marriage recognition, separation of church and state, divisive political rhetoric, “fake news,” and more round out the list. Political discussions at work are all but guaranteed: your goal is to address this potential conflict proactively by setting appropriate expectations for your employees.


How will scientists and demographers look back at this first quarter of the 21st century?  Likely as a period of time where great instability existed due to our inability to manage unregulated news from the Internet. Think about it: In the past, news reporters vetted content before it was published on the front page of a local or national newspaper. “Journalistic integrity” and ethics were the hallmark of great news anchors and networks.

That all changed once the Internet and social media entered the scene. With self-publication came the ability of ordinary citizens to “create their own version of the news,” put their slants on events, and devolve into opinion-based diatribes against politicians, political parties, or events that contradicted their model of the world.  In a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, prominent news networks and journalists caved into these demands for “taking sides” and associating and conflating news and opinions to grow their audiences. The concept of “entertainment news” resulted, changing the nature of objective journalism and reporting forever.

Suggested Leadership Communication Surrounding Political Discussions at Work

Where will this show itself most and what is the likely tipping point? Discussions about the 2024 presidential election. No matter how much your organization strives to ensure a culture of civility, respect, and inclusion, it’s likely an optimal time to reset ground rules moving forward. Reissuing policies, posting and emailing reminders, and addressing this "800-pound gorilla in the room" during all-hands meetings is likely the healthiest place to start. For example, your CEO, company owner, or head of human resources might remind people:


"Everyone, in light of the upcoming presidential elections, we’re taking this opportunity to remind you all about our expectations regarding appropriate behavior and conduct in the workplace. Unfortunately, the temperature has gone into overheat mode when it comes to red hats and blue hats, and we respect everyone’s right to support and vote for whoever they want. And yes, we recognize that political and ideological speech is protected by the First Amendment. Where the line gets blurry, however, is expressing one’s opinions with an intent to ridicule, put down, or shame or humiliate others. That’s not who we are as an organization, and that’s not who we choose to be. Such behavior also could potentially violate our policies on antidiscrimination and creating and maintaining a respectful work environment.

"We expect each and every one of our employees to create the space for their peers to do their best work every day with peace of mind. We expect everyone to feel a strong sense of belonging and inclusion, no matter what their background or what challenges we face outside our doors. We’re here to have one another’s backs, to bring out the best in one other, and to make it safe for everyone to come to work and perform at their highest level. In short, we're all in this together, and no one will be left behind.

"While we don’t intend to squelch anyone’s political points of view or stifle their communications, we have to draw a line when it comes to inflammatory rhetoric that’s intended to intimidate or humiliate others.  And we’re casting that net very widely. In other words, whether comments are direct or veiled, employees who make them will be held fully accountable for their actions and the reactions that result from them. In other words, we’re holding you accountable for your own “perception management”—that means, not on your stated intentions but on the ultimate effect and impact of your words on others.

"Thank you for taking this message seriously. We know these are difficult times for many reasons.  And while you have every right to your political beliefs and party affiliation, you’re responsible for remaining aware of and sensitive to the level of tensions and frustration throughout the community, including among your coworkers, who may be feeling stress and outright fear about the upcoming elections. We’ll make it up to election day in November together as long as we maintain respect for one another’s individual differences and points of view.  Everyone at XYZ Company should feel safe, welcome, respected, and included. We all have a vested interest in reducing disruptions and maintaining a culture of respect. And we can only achieve that with everyone’s support and commitment. Does anyone have any questions or suggestions they'd like to share? [No] Then I thank you all for your support and cooperation moving forward through these unprecedented times."

With clear expectations set proactively upfront, a healthy foundation of respect can be established and reinforced moving forward.

An Action Plan for a New Way Forward

SHRM is definitely onto something. . . It’s important to track and trend workers’ feelings regarding the incivilities they experience at work. It’s even more critical to provide employers with tools to combat these ongoing tensions that find their way into the workplace, whether in terms of shaming and public humiliation, isolation, or even outright violence. The following steps will help you make it “psychologically safe” for employees to do their best work every day with peace of mind despite today’s tumultuous landscape:

Step 1: Come from wisdom. Be the wisdom. Develop your own narrative in terms of what’s brought us as a nation to where we are now.  Talk to your employees about “seeing things from the 30,000-foot level” so they can look down on what’s happening in the weeds (where we work, live, and play every day) with a more objective and dispassionate view.  Look to these great tectonic trends that underly our conflicting world and help people understand that we’re all doing the best we can under the circumstances. Remind your team members to look forward—not just down—while they’re at that 30,000-foot level because they can see ahead a lot more clearly from there. After your discussion, allow them to “return to the weeds,” but remind them to keep these broader perspectives in mind so they feel in greater control.  

Step 2: Counsel your team members with tidbits of leadership wisdom throughout the remainder of the year:

·       When in doubt, err on the side of compassion.

·       What you want for yourself, give to another.

·       Teach what you choose to learn.

·       No one does anything wrong given their model of the world.

·       There’s so much more that unites us than divides us.

·       We’ve got your back. No one will be left behind. We’re all in this together.

·       Bring out the best in your peers and practice role-model leadership.

These messages and affirmations aren’t just words; they’re values that are needed more now than ever. “Corporate social responsibility” doesn’t only refer to environmentalism and sustainability; it’s also all about selflessness, otherness, and ensuring that your employees can do their best work every day with peace of mind. We are indeed responsible for one another. Your leadership messaging can reflect those values and set expectations appropriately to navigate the rapids of political turmoil.

Step 3: Increase recognition for a job well done or for extraordinary effort. Remember that recognition is the psychic income that keeps us all motivated and engaged. Best of all, it’s free. Give it generously whenever the opportunity arises. It will change the temperature and tone in the room, helping everyone feel more comfortable both individually and as a team.

Step 4: Reinject a healthy sense of fun and laughter in the workplace. Don’t take yourselves or your work too seriously. Practice a bit more “enlightenment,” where a lighter feeling  and style begins to become the norm. Sure, the pressure to produce has never been higher, but you’ll get there a lot more quickly by building people’s self-confidence rather than by making them afraid of making a mistake.

Step 5: Reassert the rules and expectations you have regarding respect in the workplace. Telling your story and sharing your narrative might likewise sound something like this:

“Folks, life is too short. And I know we’re all feeling the pain of the upcoming elections, the prices at the pump and the grocery store, and the overwhelming sense of divide that’s become part of American culture at the present moment. Just remember that there’s a lot more that unites us than divides us, we’re all doing the best we can based on our beliefs and our hopes for this country and for our careers and families, and that when in doubt, we should all err on the side of compassion. Let’s bring out the best in one another, lighten up a bit, and ensure that others know that we have their backs.  We’ll make it through the rest of this year, even leading up to the November elections. 

“But my expectations will remain the same no matter what: We’ll respect one another. We’ll refrain from any red hat—blue hat discussions. We’ll respect our differences. And most important, we’ll commit to doing our best work every day with peace of mind. That’s the gift that I want to give to you and the gift that I want you to give to others. It’s our way of supporting one another and serving as role models to everyone else in the organization and in the community. It’s our way of ensuring that we rely upon one another at work to help us excel and thrive in what we’re doing. Is everyone clear on my expectations and does this seem like a reasonable approach to the assumptions we should make for the second half of the year?  [Yes] Does anyone have any questions or suggestions?  [No] Great. Then let’s move forward with open eyes but good intentions and a healthy dose of respect and trust for one another."

We don’t know what will come of the 2024 election between the two fiercely different visions of America’s political future and role in the world. But we have to come from wisdom.  We have to be the voice of calm. Our goal is to heal the wound, ensure that employees feel welcome and included, while keeping political disagreement and tension to a minimum.

Change is coming too rapidly for us to react to it consistently—let alone manage it proactively.

Much like the Greatest Generation during the Great Depression and World War II, this is our generation’s burden to carry, our responsibility to future generations of Americans.  It’s definitely going to remain a challenge for the rest of 2024, and resentment will clearly linger well into 2025, no matter which “team” wins. Just remember the adage: “Change your perspective, and you’ll change your perception.” In other words, if you change the way you look at something, you’ll likely experience it differently—regardless of the objective realities that are to come.

A Time for Healing and Peace of Mind

It’s time to heal the room. It’s time to give people back to themselves.  It’s time to restore a sense of wellbeing and belonging.  You can do this as a C-suite executive, business owner, department head, or team leader.  This is worth discussing with your boss, CEO, inhouse counsel, and HR leader to determine if people are experiencing any form of overt or concealed incivility at your workplace. We can heal this together or allow it to tear us apart even further. As in all matters, though, this is your company—your culture and ecosystem—and you have every right to control it to the best of your ability so that your employees can experience peace of mind at work and experience some comfort from the storm that’s raging outside your door.

If not you, who?  If not now, when?  You be the first domino. You take the lead in bringing peace back to your workplace.  No, you can’t control presidential candidates' campaign promises or threats, America’s election results, supply chain or wage-induced inflation, or the like. But you can ensure that people feel respected and protected at work. You can indeed make that a stated goal of your organization as you proceed into the second half of this year.  Make this a strategic imperative going forward so your people can thrive, despite the apparent chaos all around them.

Most important, make this a topic of conversation with your senior leadership team and expand it to your employees. Healing begins by recognizing the injury, predicting the fear, and listening with your eyes and heart in addition to your ears. There’s no need to judge anyone or anything, but as senior leaders, we certainly have the right to observe. And from this observation we can discuss “800-pound gorillas in the room” and help give people back to themselves.  As crazy as it sounds, people may look to come to work to gain some level of peace of mind and acceptance—something that family and friends may not be able to otherwise provide them at a time of such potential upheaval. We’re all in this together. No one will or should be left behind. Make that your mantra for the second half of 2024 so that your employees can thrive despite the incivility that underlies our society at the moment. That’s the gift you have to give. Let wisdom and selflessness lead the way.



For more information on Paul's books, please visit his #HarperCollinsLeadership author page at Consulting Services 

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