Written by Michael McCafferty, FEI Senior Account Manager

“I just can’t believe somebody would say that!” exclaimed a human resources manager recently.

We were talking about an employee who had been reprimanded for making unprofessional remarks towards a coworker after a discussion about presidential candidates became heated. Political divisions in our country are very deep right now, and this election year features the most contentious (and nastiest) presidential election in recent memory. As a result, some organizations are seeing high levels of politically-induced conflict giving new meaning to the dangers of “office politics.”

Given the 24-hour news cycle and the prevalence of social media in many people’s lives, it can be difficult to not feel bombarded with political messages. It’s only natural that most of us want to share our opinions, thoughts and reactions to what we see and hear. But, tempting as it may be to express our opinions, most human resources experts recommend avoiding politics entirely while on the clock.

Much like religion (or even your love life), politics are very personal matters. Most of us develop our political beliefs and affiliations because we identify strongly with particular ideological positions that resonate with our personal values. So when people make unflattering or negative comments about political causes or candidates with whom we identify, it’s very easy for us to feel personally attacked. Such comments can serve to make workers less productive while feeling more isolated and bullied, as well.

Company leaders have an even greater responsibility to not abuse their influence by contributing to a politically hostile work environment. A recent survey by an assistant professor from Columbia University found that nearly 25 percent of employees reported that their bosses tried to engage them in politics, and about seven percent reported clearly coercive political contact at work including threats of plant closures, cuts in hours or layoffs. Less extreme—but still problematic—are political discussions that could lead to allegations of discrimination or harassment (comments about a particular candidate being “too old” or voicing support for “banning” people of a particular religion from entering the country, for example).

Employers can’t forbid people from expressing themselves, but they can hold people accountable for their actions and words. Everyone has the right to free speech, but everyone also has the right to work in a space free of harassment and hostility. The key is respect: when we practice respectful behaviors towards each other, we serve as role models and spread such behaviors in the workplace and beyond.

Here are some respectful behaviors to consider during the election cycle:

  • Before speaking, consider the impact of your words on others.
  • Understand your triggers or hot button issues, so you can know what topics to avoid.
  • Take responsibility for your actions and practice self-restraint and anger management skills in responding to potential conflicts.
  • If a coworker tries to engage you in a political conversation, politely decline.
  • When you overhear political talk going on, keep your opinions to yourself.

If you need help learning how to better manage your feelings during difficult political discussions or in a politically tense work environment—including sensitive topics outside the realm of    politics—please contact your EAP today.