Politics in the Workplace: How to Handle Heated Conversations

You’re in the breakroom when you hear two of your employees discussing the debate between President Trump and Joe Biden. The conversation starts out calmly but soon escalates into a heated argument.

If you’re unsure how to handle such a situation, you’re not alone. According to a recent survey by ComplyRight, more than 25% of small business managers and employers report that addressing conflicts due to political speech at work is their number one concern regarding the presidential election.

So what should you do in the scenario described above? Let’s look at the recommended steps employers should take when witnessing a political argument between coworkers:

Employer Steps to Take Concerning Arguments in the Workplace

  1. Defuse the situation by immediately separating the participants. When possible, involve more than one management-level employee in the intervention to corroborate the facts.
  2. Remain as neutral as possible. Avoid siding with one person or using inflammatory language that could escalate the problem. Although you may share a viewpoint with one of the individuals, this is not the time to express it. Your main objective is to neutralize the situation.
  3. Review your policies with the offender. Private employers have the right to set rules and policies around political discussions and activities. You can detail the exact behaviors that are prohibited in your workplace. Review this policy with any offenders and let them know that repeat violations won’t be tolerated.
  4. Follow through. When an employee defies your stated company policies, implement progressive discipline. For example, issue a verbal warning for the first offense, followed by a written warning for a second offense. Make it clear that a third offense will result in termination, and if it happens, follow through.
  5. Don’t play favorites. Be careful not to let personal bias affect how you react to a situation — treat all employees who violate your policies the same way. It’s critical to administer your policies fairly and consistently to avoid any potential for discrimination claims.

Put Your Rules in Writing

Handling heated discussions is contingent upon having your political rules in writing. Every business is unique, and it’s up to each employer to define acceptable and unacceptable workplace behaviors. You may decide to ban all political discussions when employees are on the clock to curb any potential arguments. But it’s recommended you allow employees to discuss politics on their own time (e.g., on lunch breaks) if discussions are not disruptive or discriminatory. After all, it’s natural for coworkers to chat about current events – provided it doesn’t unsettle the workplace.

Every business is unique, and it’s up to each employer to define acceptable and unacceptable workplace behaviors.

In your policy, you can also:

  • Prohibit solicitations for contributions or support for a political campaign during working hours
  • Forbid using your company name in connection with any campaign activity
  • Ban employees displaying or wearing materials related to a candidate
  • Disallow employees from persuading coworkers to vote for a candidate

The Company Policies Smart App from HRdirect helps your business create, manage and share numerous attorney-approved employment policies in minutes. You’ll quickly and easily have a federal- and state-compliant political policy that you can distribute to employees on paper or online – plus you can customize the wording to suit your needs.

Jaime Lizotte is the manager of HRdirect Smart Apps, a provider of HR compliance products and programs for small businesses. Jaime began her career in HR in 2007 as an HR Manager at a small marketing firm.  Passionate about how to improve HR in small businesses, she transitioned her expertise to product development in 2010.  During her career, she has both managed and developed various HR solutions, from training and safety to HR and tax software.  In her current position, she is focused on developing next generation products to replace traditional HR solutions, making HR management easier for employers.


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