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Tensions over politics at work have HR on guard

Politics at work may hurt productivity and office harmony. One strategy for defusing a charged atmosphere may be to get employees focused on shared goals.

HR managers worry national politics in the workplace may cause disruptions, especially in the battleground state of Florida. Early voting there started Monday, and it has HR managers on alert for potential problems, according to Heather Deyrieux, president of the HR Florida State Council Inc.

Early voting puts politics top of mind, Deyrieux said. Managers fear this could trigger arguments and tensions among co-workers, she said. The council, which is a state affiliate for the Society for Human Resource Management and provides education and networking, has some 14,000 members. 

"It's definitely a major concern," Deyrieux said, who is also an HR manager for Sarasota County. This election "is more divisive and heated than in the past," she said.

Deyrieux said she's heard of cases where HR managers have had to calm workplace disputes. The message from managers is typically direct; she summed it up this way: "This is a professional atmosphere, and those conversations don't need to be taking place here."

A significant percentage of employees have reported that this election "has led them to avoid a co-worker because of their political views," Brent Cassell, a Gartner analyst, said last week at the firm's ReimagineHR virtual conference. More than 25% of employees surveyed by the research firm said they are avoiding co-workers because of politics at work.

"Not only are employees avoiding one another, but they're also having a tougher time staying focused," Cassell said.

People are "highly strung" right now, said David Rock, CEO at the NeuroLeadership Institute, a global research organization in New York.

There are things leaders can do to counter office problems, Rock said; one is to provide a clear message about politics at work. 

Tensions between coworkers are increasin
Tensions between coworkers are increasing.

Off limits: Politics, sex and religion

"The workplace is not a place to discuss politics, nor is it a place to discuss religion or sex, by the way, never has been," Rock said. 

In response, managers can "focus people on their shared goals," such as "serving customers and doing the important things that they're doing," Rock said.

Election-related workplace problems don't necessarily begin in the office.

Employees may be sharing their political views with co-workers outside of the workplace on social media, and the sore feelings around these discussions can bleed into an office, Deyrieux said. Political flags and bumper stickers on cars in the employer's lot can create another conflict trigger, she said.

I think we're going to see an interesting atmosphere over the next couple of weeks.
Heather DeyrieuxPresident, HR Florida State Council Inc.

"I think we're going to see an interesting atmosphere over the next couple of weeks," Deyrieux said.

Discussing politics at work is not necessarily forbidden by some firms.

A trend in HR is to encourage employees to bring their "whole self" to work, and this includes creating space for people to express themselves and share their passions and interests.

HR technology has responded with platforms, such as one developed by Bonfyre Inc. that is intended "to recreate the casual watercooler interactions that drive workplace relationships," said Mark Sawyier, Bonfyre co-founder and CEO. These interactions could include sharing things about their lives, hobbies and politics, in some cases, he said. 

HR could also invest in tools that track employee productivity and watch for divisive language. But Deyrieux indicated that interest in monitoring technologies is not high. "It's not a conversation that's made it to the mainstream," she said.

Rock is not a fan of monitoring technologies because they send a message that employees aren't trusted.

"One thing an organization can do that helps [employees] is trust people and give them dignity and respect," Rock said.

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