Discussing politics in the workplace is a delicate subject that can influence team dynamics, employee morale, and organisational culture. While some advocate for open dialogue to promote diversity of thought, others warn of the potential for conflict and divisiveness. This article discusses the challenges for employers and what they can do.

How Employers Can Manage Political Discussions Among Employees

We have all heard about office politics and the role they play in the culture of an organisation. But what happens when we have a general election looming and conversation in the workplace switches to real world politics.

Reed Recruitment carried out a survey and their latest research produced some really interesting statistics. On the one hand 60 % of UK workers felt it was OK to talk about politics at work yet half of them would not share who they would be giving their vote to, suggesting that this was too personal to share. Why might individuals not want to discuss politics in any great depth?

  • Politics overload – with every news program talking pledges and fixed gambling investigations, leader debates, manifestos setting out the weird and wonderful ways they think votes can be assured and party-political broadcasts, maybe they have had enough and don’t want to discuss it at work.
  • They are simply not interested. They have their views and know who they are going to vote for and won’t be swayed, and don’t want to be influenced – it’s not open for debate.
  • It’s no one else’s business.
  • A desire to not to put themselves in a position where they might be caught in a controversial conversation or debate about their views or even face challenge or ridicule.
  • They don’t want to cause offence to others and appreciate their views are best kept to themselves and want to avoid getting involved in office politics.
  • Maybe they are concerned if people knew their political views and preferences it might affect their position or development/promotional prospects.

Reed’s research found 30% of people surveyed experienced co-workers trying to influence their political beliefs in the workplace. Even more surprisingly 1 in 10 surveyed said their employer had tried to influence their political beliefs at some time. It’s no wonder that people don’t want to discuss politics in detail at work.

The Challenges for Employers

If we look at the Human Rights Act, Article 10 provides for the right to freedom of expression, but employers do need to consider the impact on workplace relationships and the legal implications of talking politics in the workplace.

Management discussion - politics in the workplace

The biggest challenge for employers is that discussing politics at work could create animosity or friction within teams or between individuals. This can have a huge impact on team and workplace dynamics, particularly in small organisations and teams. In more extreme cases employees may feel bullied or harassed for their political beliefs and views. This could be considered as a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. Therefore subject to assessment of whether it is a genuinely held belief should they bring a tribunal claim. If an employer failed to handle a bullying or harassment claim seriously and properly, an employee can leave the organisation and make an employment tribunal claim (subject to the usual service eligibility). Or they may face claims from an individual disciplined or dismissed for poor conduct.

Other challenges can be that conflict and discontent in the workplace can fracture working relationships making the environment not a nice place to work, and can affect productivity and communication. It could prompt employees to look for another job if they feel unhappy, discontent and not looking forward to coming to work because of conflict. It could even impact the way employees communicate with and serve customers/clients.

What Can Employers Do?

Careful and appropriate handling is key. We don’t want to have a policy for every eventuality, and we would all like to think that a common-sense approach would prevail and that existing policies and procedures such as Bullying and Harassment, Dignity at Work and Equality and Diversity would cover this situation. Policies need to be clear on what is and isn’t regarded as acceptable behaviours and conduct in the workplace. If as an employer you feel this may be a very specific problem or you are noticing some issues creeping in as the political campaigns grow momentum, then you could issue some guidance or a specific policy on expressing political views in the workplace to all employees. Alternatively ensure it is included as a policy statement or section within other policies and procedures. It is always much easier to point to a breach of policy, but that doesn’t mean you can’t rely on generally accepted standards of conduct and behaviour.

If a problem arises and employees seem to be at odds with each other, look initially to address the matter with them both informally and perhaps verbally. Explain the problem, the impact they are having on each other and others around them and ask them to stop and explain the next steps if the situation continues. You could try a facilitated conversation or some mediation to help resolve matters.

If the problem persists and behaviour and conduct continues to be a problem, then you may need to consider what action to take that is appropriate in the circumstances. You may need to ask whether either party is wishing to raise a formal complaint (if they haven’t already) and if they are you must take the complaint seriously and deal with it under the organisation’s grievance procedure in a timely way. If a formal complaint is received, you will need to carry out an investigation into the alleged conduct to establish the facts and evidence and recommend whether disciplinary action is appropriate for one or both (or more) parties. If you feel one party has clearly overstepped the boundaries of appropriate conduct or behaviour and detailed investigation is not needed or will not add any further context or evidence, then you may be able to start a disciplinary process without lengthy investigation.

Workplace discussion about politics

Either way what is important is that matters are not left to fester and are not disregarded as some healthy debate and ‘a bit of workplace banter’. In summary our key takeaways for you are:

  • Make sure you have appropriate policies, procedures and/or guidelines in place on what is and isn’t acceptable conduct and behaviours in the workplace or when dealing with customers/clients.
  • Train managers on the difference between workplace banter and acceptable standards of conduct so they can help you manage situations and pick up problems swiftly and address them.
  • If you have a formal complaint, take it seriously and deal with it in a timely manner carrying out whatever level of investigation is reasonably required.
  • Ensure your stance as an employer is clear to all employees (obviously not sharing action taken against any individuals).

Facing challenges with political talk in the office? Arrange a call and we can offer comprehensive HR support and guidance.

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