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As politics heat up, so do hiring bias worries

The political polarization in the nation is also causing problems in the workplace. Political discussions are more common, and it may impact hiring choices.

Employees are discussing national politics in the workplace now more than ever. This is making some employees uncomfortable, if not irritated. But political leanings may become more than just an office irritation. Managers tend to hire people of similar ideology, and doing so could create a hiring bias.

In recruiting, some employers try to reduce hiring bias by anonymizing demographic-related information. This may involve automated removal of candidate photos and names to help recruiters focus on qualifications, not on gender, race or other characteristics that may bias the recruiter. But political leanings aren't as easy to hide on a resume. Hiring managers can find clues in volunteer work or veteran status, as well as social media posts.

There are employment discrimination protections for gender, race, religion and other characteristics. But political affiliations are not a protected class under the law.

Two new surveys of workplace attitudes on politics point to what some believe is a problem.

Political discussions increase since 2016

The Society for Human Resource Management surveyed just over 500 workers, and 34% said their workplace "is not inclusive of differing political perspectives." Robert Half International Inc., a consulting and staffing firm, surveyed about 1,000 workers. In the survey, 66% agreed that political discussions in the office are more common today than in recent years. Only 22% of the respondents felt the conversations were appropriate.

Robert Half recommends job candidates consider setting social media profiles to private. But it advises hiring managers to welcome the diversity of viewpoints.

Political discussions at work are on the rise, surveys show.
Political discussions at work are on the rise, surveys show.

The key question hiring managers should be asking is, "Are you going to fit into a team of different opinions?" said Ryan Sutton, Robert Half district president for the technology and creative group in New York and New England. "The real art of collaboration is the ability to bounce ideas off each other and get a different take on it."

Still, job candidates may face hiring bias because of political ideology, which could potentially be widespread due to the increased political polarization in the U.S., said Andrew Johnson, assistant professor of management in the College of Business at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi.

"It is becoming more common to learn and make inferences about an applicant's political ideology, particularly given information sources such as social media," Johnson said. It's easy to separate those perceived as "different," he said.

Johnson and colleague Katherine Roberto, also an assistant professor of management at the college, have written papers on how political ideology affects the workplace. Their work includes a paper published in March by the Human Resource Management Review, "Elections and selection: The role of political ideology in selection decisions."

Religion is protected by law, not political views

"Many people may not see anything wrong with not selecting someone who holds a different political ideology, since it is not a protected class for most U.S. employees," Johnson said. "However, this practice could mean that the organization as a whole suffers due to less diversity in background, perspective and decision making."

Many people may not see anything wrong with not selecting someone who holds a different political ideology, since it is not a protected class for most U.S. employees.
Andrew JohnsonAssistant professor of management in the College of Business, Texas A&M University

Some of the workplace politics may be the result of CEOs who are speaking out on various political and social issues, said David Lewis, president and CEO of OperationsInc, an HR consulting firm in Norwalk, Conn. "A lot of it is somewhat self-created based on the choice by leadership to be outspoken and open about their opinions," he said.

David LewisDavid Lewis

Political views can be so polarizing they can create a level of discomfort at work and lead to conflicts, Lewis said. This includes employees who won't express themselves because of fears that people will be critical of them. "That's really having an adverse impact on company culture as well," he said.

Some companies use monitoring tools to flag offensive language in corporate chats and emails. But extending this to political discussions -- such as flagging references to President Trump or Sen. Elizabeth Warren -- could cross over to a legally protected activity, Lewis said.

If HR used tools or created policies that forbade all political discussions, companies could find themselves open to complaints with the National Labor Relations Board or to a lawsuit, Lewis said.

Another problem may be related to AI. Earlier this year, researchers at New York University said that AI code was overwhelmingly written by men. The political ideology of the code writers wasn't considered in the study, but the report argued that reducing bias in AI code required diversity in its authors.

Using tech to channel discussions

Instead of trying to clamp down on political discussions, employers can allow them to occur, said Ali Fazal, senior director of marketing at Hibob Inc., an HR software management platform.

The "only other option is to get people to completely censor themselves in the workplace, reveal nothing personal," Fazal said. "The truth is that people are thinking about this."

Some employers allow political discussions, as well as the sharing of other interests and hobbies, to occur in collaboration tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams, Fazal said. Employers are aware of the conversations and "can take action to mitigate any conflicts that may arise."

Steven CatesSteven Cates

Creating channels for discussion is an excellent process, said Steven Cates, a graduate HR professor at Purdue University Global. Such a system creates "constant engagement with employees" for HR, he said, which could avoid confrontation later on. He also sees it as a more reliable way to gauge employee attitudes than using once-a-year -- or less -- engagement surveys.

"It's a constant way to be able to monitor what people are thinking in your organization so that you can be proactive rather than reactive," Cates said.

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