Politics right around the world seem to be getting more and more divisive, and it’s impossible to avoid the topic in our day-to-day conversations — including at work. Conversations can often get tense when people on your team have conflicting opinions, whether it’s about politics or something else.
With the referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament just around the corner, your workplace might already be abuzz with political opinions.
So, as a manager, what should you do?
Should you put a blanket ban on political comments and conversations?
If not, what ground rules should your company put in for these conversations to ensure colleagues are treated fairly, regardless of their beliefs?
Politics at work: What the stats tell us
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that employee morale and productivity often take a nosedive when colleagues aren't getting along.
Despite this, 45% of workers report that they have experienced political disagreements in the workplace, and more than 1 in 4 workers say they have personally been treated differently at work because of their political views or affiliation.
Research also shows us that employees expect their business leaders to do something about it, with, 75% of people wanting their CEOs to take a stand to address discrimination.
Understand the right of your employees to express their views
First things first, your employees have the right to express views that are contrary to those held by their colleagues or their employers.
However, you can and should ensure your employees understand that, if views are being expressed publicly, it needs to be clear the view being expressed is a private or personal view, and not connected with their employment.
Having a social media policy is a good place to start. You might want to stipulate that when using social media platforms, an employee should not refer to their employment or employer on their account and include a disclaimer that the views expressed are personal.
Employers should also be careful about their response to posts made by employees who adopt a different stance to that of the employer.
For example, if their post included offensive or racist language, it could be grounds for a warning or dismissal, depending on the contents. However, simply stating a different opinion to the employer is usually within an employee’s rights.
Don’t outright ban political talk in the workplace
It may be tempting to make your workplace a politics-free zone in the interest of team cohesion and unity, but banning certain topics can actually do more to hurt team culture than it does protect it.
Making certain topics off-limits is also incredibly difficult to enforce and may end up making team members feel more uncomfortable than if they were able to engage in a healthy debate over different opinions.
So, how can you ensure potentially heated conversions remain respectful and don’t damage your workforce?
Set an example
No different from managing a team of employees from different cultures, races, genders, and backgrounds, it’s important to understand and appreciate different political perspectives amongst your team too.
Just as with other forms of diversity, it’s important to remember that as a manager and leader, you set the tone for how your team members relate to one another.
A certain degree of conflict may be unavoidable, but it doesn’t have to be disrespectful.
Use team members to set an example by encouraging differing views, demonstrating respect, and showing a willingness to challenge your own assumptions — not just on political topics but about anything on which the team disagrees.
Don’t force the issue
While there’s nothing wrong with healthy debate, not everyone wants to talk politics at work - and that’s okay too.
Make it clear to your team that these kinds of conversations should only happen between team members who want to participate, and no one should be dragged into the discussion, even if they were willing to talk about it previously.
Establish (and reinforce) ground rules
Even with you setting an example, your team may not know how to have these types of conversations in a respectful way.
It isn’t your job to teach your team members about politics, but it is your job to teach them how to disagree in a constructive way and the best way to do this is to set some simple ground rules.
As the manager, you need to:
Make it clear that team members must be thoughtful and respectful toward one another.
Encourage your team members to seek to understand others’ experiences and what led them to their political beliefs. Remind your team that even if someone on the team is voting differently from them, they can still care for and deeply respect that person.
Don’t tolerate name-calling, eye-rolling, interruptions, or judgemental comments (e.g. “How could you possibly think that?!”), and keep an eye on flaring tempers.
If disrespectful comments are made ensure you take a stand. The wider team needs to understand that the comment was inappropriate but you should also follow up individually with the person who made the comment to ensure they understand the issue and don’t repeat the behaviour.
Tread carefully with direct reports whose politics differ from yours. You don’t want them to feel that they’re going to be negatively evaluated due to your differing stances.