Managing politics in the workplace
Engagement 5 minute read

Managing politics in the workplace

Megan Orr | November 3, 2020

Although speaking about politics in the workplace may seem taboo, it’s actually quite commonplace in Slack channels and around the water cooler. It’s important that managers are mindful of any divisive viewpoints and monitor situations to ensure a respectful work environment.

With the recent election in B.C. and the upcoming U.S.A. election and the general politicalization of COVID-19, it’s likely there’s been a lot of political talk around the figurative water cooler lately—or the #water_cooler Slack channel, if you have one. 

Politics in the workplace can be a sensitive subject even at the best of times. Harvard Business Review discusses managing teams with differing political views, noting how this year’s high-stakes presidential election in the United States, as well as “the Covid-19 health emergency and continued social unrest over racial injustice, is affecting employees as people, and it’s also affecting how they show up at work”.

It’s difficult to outright ban discussing politics in the workplace, as politics can impact people’s jobs—either directly or indirectly—as well as their lives outside of work. We recommend offering clear guidelines as managers and HR professionals about what is appropriate workplace conversation, as well as making it clear that any form of disrespectful dialogue or discrimination will not be tolerated. 

As an HR practitioner, you can ensure that employees act civilly to one another and help mediate any conflicts, but also help prevent them.

Continue reading to learn more about how to manage teams with conflicting political views.

Your company may not have any apparent divisive political opinions, but it’s still important to consider what issues might arise.

The challenge is to ensure that even if tensions are running high, employees remain both professional and respectful. 

It’s also important to be aware of your employees’ rights when it comes to expressing their political views, and what your obligations are as their employer to protect those rights. We advise consulting with your labour board or a professional legal advisor if you require specific clarification. 

Alison Green on Ask A Manager writes that “[i]t’s possible to have interesting, productive political conversations with your coworkers… but it’s also possible to cross lines, cause tension and even harm your work relationships, so you need to proceed with caution”. Green notes that the most important thing to keep in mind is that some people simply don’t want to discuss politics at work, and that should be respected. 

Here are some other things to keep in mind:

  • You want to ensure that your advice and policies don’t come across as presumptuous regarding the behaviours and attitudes of any staff members.
  • In relation to the above, you want to make sure that your advice is generalized, and not targeted at any specific group or person. 
  • The focus should be on respectful conversations, but also on ensuring employees feel safe at work. 

In well-functioning teams where respect is a given, it’s likely that conflicts won’t even be an issue when discussing politics in the workplace. However, there’s always the potential for contentious issues to come up, even between coworkers who generally get along. 

The key is to encourage teams to only discuss what they feel comfortable discussing, and to try to always lead by example with understanding and empathy. You should also remember that it isn’t your responsibility to teach your employees about politics—and you probably shouldn’t—but rather to ensure that they know how to respectfully discuss politics if and when they come up.

You should also assure employees that they have the right to politely shut down any problematic situations, either by giving the person a gentle reminder about appropriate workplace topics or by going directly to HR to discuss the matter. Employees should always feel like they’re able to walk away from an uncomfortable conversation, even if the other person is senior to them in the workplace. 

Here are some examples of phrases your employees can use to help steer any difficult conversations elsewhere: 

  • While I appreciate your point of view, I would really rather not talk about politics. What shows have you been watching lately?
  • It’s not that I don’t think this conversation is important, I just think we should refrain from discussing politics at work/right now.
  • I would really rather not talk politics, but if I decide I want to, I’ll let you know. 

As you can see, the employee doesn’t need to go into much detail or explain why they’re uncomfortable. Ask A Manager’s Alison Green advises that if the coworker is being particularly adamant and insisting that the conversation continue, that the other employee removes themselves from the situation, saying “I’ve told you I don’t want to have this discussion. Can we talk about something else, or should I move to a different area[?]”.

The bottom line is that if employees continue to treat each other with respect, they’ll be able to navigate any political conversations with ease. 


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