Should Companies Allow Employees to Talk Politics at Work?

Yes, companies should allow employees to talk politics at work because in the year 2021 there’s no longer a strong distinction between work and outside life. An inclusive work environment means welcoming people who show up with their political identity. It’s a fantastic direction but requires responsibility from all employees as participants. Allowing employees to talk politics at work needs to be managed with intention. Yet expectations need to be set, and etiquette defined, around how to engage sensitive topics at work.

Sensitive topics at work: to talk or not talk?

Talking Politics At Work Has Hit a Pivotal Point

If this were 1999 or 2009 or 2019, this would be a one line post recommending every company lay down the law that no one is allowed to talk about politics, race relations, the treatment of any body of people, news events, etc. in the course of work. When you’re at work, you should be focused on work.

Welcome to post-pandemic, real-talk 2021. Where the lines between home and work are intractably blurred. Where you must show up to work as you are (rightfully), and be respected for it (amen). Where we juggle life and work as one, not as two separate balls to balance. Where social media is 24-7 in our face about all-the-things, including the fake news things. Where cancel culture trends as a hashtag after another celebrity says something uninformed. Where civic engagement is at all time high (thankfully) but is not always civil engagement (unfortunately). Where there’s new social etiquette emerging between the vaccinated, the yet-to-be vaccinated, and the never-gonna-get-vaccinated. In short, no one predicted the ballyhooed future of work would look anything quite like this. 

It’s a wonderful time to be alive with the opportunities in front of us to reinvent so much. And a wonderful time to be intentional actioning change at work. In 2021, there’s a new order of what matters. Work/Life lines are blurred and inclusion has arrived as table stakes for a functioning organizational culture. Leaders that ignore this, demand everyone at the business ignores this — or at least doesn’t talk about it — are going to be taught a hard lesson about what’s happening, what’s at stake, and why this all matters. Just look at Basecamp, whose reputation went from how you should build a business to how you should never run a business in just two weeks.

What Can We Learn From the Basecamp Cautionary Tale?

Basecamp decided to ban political conversation at work. And it blew up in their face. Casey Newton at The Verge has the full story. As Jason Fried, the Basecamp CEO, later wrote in an apology, what “started with policy changes that felt simple, reasonable, and principled, and it blew things up culturally in ways we never anticipated.” This moment tells a larger story than just about the Basecamp culture and their leadership. This is a reckoning any 21st Century company needs to address and realize: there’s no stopping political conversation if you value inclusion. 

This episode at Basecamp is something organizations should learn from. The irony of their name being “a starting point” that we can all learn from and begin our climb. The moment leadership made the wrong decision to eliminate conversing about political topics (and accentuated the mistake by announcing it publicly, instead of opening an internal debate), Basecamp signaled to the world that their culture is stuck in a 20th Century way of thinking: when you’re at work, work is the only thing that matters. 

Having a “no politics at work” rule ignores what’s happening in the larger culture of the world. Let’s think about what Basecamp could have done, and should do, differently.

Hire for a Culture of Acceptance

To state the obvious, improving diversity doesn’t mean hiring for quotas of opposing thought. No one would consider hiring a white supremist to balance the thought of a team of accepting people. Diversity begins with hiring people from different backgrounds and inclusion begins with hiring people who accept people of all backgrounds. Diversity without inclusion, or inclusion without diversity, is worthless to organizational culture.

To develop a culture of compassion, empathy, and belonging, make sure candidates are vetted to be accepting. Reference former colleagues, social media posts, anything that might reveal attitudes that reveal someone’s true character. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a small or large organization, the people you let in the room are going to influence the culture more than any procedure or policy.

Be careful of the grey area when it comes to hiring people who want to argue political semantics. Wave a caution flag when social media threads reveal a candidate’s online debates that defend the indefensible, because they are caught up in language and labels. This behavior reveals a lack of compassion and suggests a character that enjoys stirring emotion.

Large organizations might read this and think this ship has sailed because they already have a huge staff that wasn’t vetted like this. If this sounds like your organization, read on to consider how to set new expectations on what conversation is permissible and how (and where) it should run.

Set Expectations About How, and When, Colleagues Can Talk About Non-work Sensitive Topics

Saying no, as a blanket policy, to allowing employees to engage in political conversation (or debate) is myopic, naive, and impossible. 

Expectations to Set: 

  • Allow political discourse. Conversations about politics at work are inevitable. Otherwise a pressure cooker will build pressure and tensions will eventually release in undesired ways.
  • Set boundaries. Designate times and forums where sensitive topics can be discussed. Define the settings (time and place) during the week when it’s considered appropriate to have non-work conversations.
  • Have guidelines about decorum. Explain that preferred etiquette asks that when a potentially sensitive topic comes up, it should be discussed live (on a call or face-to-face) where the tone of voice is clear. Do not engage in political conversations in message chat or email because it leaves ambiguity around the tone of voice, and potentially distracts others who didn’t desire to engage (like followers of a Slack channel).
  • Offer mechanisms for people to discreetly document, and inform leaders of, moments they felt emotionally uncomfortable or threatened. Emotional safety is critical to a highly productive culture of collaboration. Protect each person’s emotional safety by giving them a private (perhaps anonymous) way to report conditions where they felt threatened or reduced as a person. Make sure someone who is well-trained is in charge of recording and responding to incidents. If there’s no follow-up to a report, then everyone loses confidence rather quickly in the organization’s ability to support and protect its people.
  • Be clear about having a zero tolerance for hate, defending hate, and — this is important — ignoring hate. Then back that policy up through action, in the unfortunate event, when hate reveals itself. Every employee should be trained during their onboarding, as part of their duty in their role, to report anything they witness that borders on inappropriate conduct. 
  • Run regular trainings. Reinforce the boundaries with examples of proper behavior that speak to civil etiquette.
  • Watch for news headlines that will surface at work. Get ahead of important civic issues by reminding managers of guidelines. If something in the news is becoming a distraction, then run toward the heat. Offer space for employees to come together to vent (do not do this in a text message system or email, but someplace where you can hear voices) and then ask everyone to resume work or take some personal time.

From a legal perspective, if someone has to be fired for behavior, it’s critical there are guidelines set in writing about how the company policies, investigates and takes actions against hate speech and intolerance. Employee handbooks are the right place to include this language and make sure new hires are educated about this aspect of the culture. And be specific about engaging politics at work with examples of where conversation runs offensive, and therefore not appropriate.

If this reads like too much to handle, then it’s time to consider a culture consultant. Brining in an outside expert, who has the time and know-how to manage organizational culture effectively to avoid blowups like the episode at Basecamp, might be the smartest investment your company makes to protect its reputation.

How Do You Reinforce Behaviors That Set Behavior Standards?

Establishing work communication etiquette and decorum are critical to creating a safe environment in a workplace culture. Many say culture is created through behaviors that reinforce (or negatively undermine) the values of the organization. It’s fine, as a company, to discourage political talk at inappropriate times, much as a family discourages political talk at a large family gathering. We know self-identity is often tied to political identity and you can’t ask someone to turn off their identity. Yet there are subtle ways to reinforce behaviors that steer groups away from engaging in delicate, non-work conversations. 

If you have hired people that are compassionate and sensitive to feelings of their colleagues, it should be straightforward to develop social etiquette standards that can acknowledge how someone feels about something, perhaps something in the news that comes up at the beginning of a meeting, and move right past the topic to steer the conversation toward the work agenda. Subtle nudges like “I understand you’re paying attention to [the topic] and we could talk about that all day. Maybe that’s a topic for the next forum. We’re limited on time so I’m going to move back to the agenda.” Or “Honestly I’m not comfortable talking about [the topic] because I have a lot to learn about it. Let’s use our next forum to help educate people like me on your position.”

Watch Out for Rants

Sometimes, even at a safe forum designated to share feelings and positions about sensitive topics, feelings get hurt. This might arise when it’s been too long for employees to voice their opinions or feelings about treatment (or lack thereof) toward themselves, or another individual. In other words, there’s a festering situation where pressure is building. The forum becomes an outlet and someone stages a rant. And while their rant might make the ranter feel better, often others become offended. 

The problem here isn’t the rant. It’s what led up to the rant. What happened (or is happening) in this organization’s culture that built emotional pressure inside this person (and probably others)? Every situation is different. A healthy culture practices introspection, promotes proactive communication, encourages tolerance, and constantly analyzes what can be approved to stay ahead of any tension mounting. 

This is why OrgVital recommends organizations find an outside ear to listen and observe. Culture consultants are removed from the day-to-day in a way they are able to understand an organization’s culture with a fresh perspective with little bias. 

Be Considerate of Who Gets the Questions

Just because someone identifies with a specific community doesn’t make them an expert on that community, or mean they desire to be the go-to expert for questions about the community. If someone identifies as a lesbian may not want to become the resident expert for everyone in the organization about how to treat or say things appropriately to others who also identify as lesbians. In fact, questions of this nature can become an emotional burden. The person feels like they are rude if they don’t answer, or that they have to answer perfectly to represent the community well. If someone, albeit earnestly and politely, is asking someone general questions on the identity or the community, it’s important to step in. Ask if permission has been granted and if not, suggest everyone moves on. 

Should Organizations Ban Taboo Subject Matter?

Banning taboo topics, the ones that always end in heated debate, is a slippery slope. It’s better to recommend avoiding such topics because they risk offending others. When it comes to humor, like sharing an insensitive joke or internet meme, the same stance applies. Is sharing the thing really worth the risk of offending a colleague? With a zero tolerance policy set around all things hate and intolerance (a previous point), hopefully colleagues are wise about what they bring up and what they share. While conversations about politics at work are inevitable, being clear about what’s potentially offensive is a smart way to set some etiquette examples to steer conversation away from taboo subject matter.

Leaders Need To Set the Tone But They Don’t Have To Do It Alone

No one prepares leaders to cultivate and manage culture. This stuff is hard and messy. It’s not the type of work you signed up for as a leader. Yet it matters. It really, really matters to let voices be heard and to signal every voice will be listened to). 

Inclusion takes a lot more intention than adding a colorful webpage to your business’ website. Inclusion is more than diversity numbers. If you want everyone to feel like they belong, plan moments when people can speak freely to be themselves. You know your inclusion initiatives are working when a sensitive topics come up making people feel mildly uncomfortable, yet afterwards people get back to work feeling a stronger sense of belonging through acceptance of candor.

Indeed, no one prepares leaders or CEOs to be culture managers. Just as a CEO finds a CFO to handle finances, organizations of size (certainly above 100 employees) should have a Chief People Officer or a similar role in charge of the culture and the employee experience (this is not an HR position but should certainly collaborate closely with Human Resources).

Culture Analytics Solutions Will Help

Organizations should budget for outside resources like consultants and culture management systems that capture and harness employee and culture data to inform what needs to be improved in the organizational culture. Consultants will help get frameworks in place. Culture management solutions like culture surveys and analytics will help prove the frameworks are working. Leadership anxiety will lesson when politics at work come up knowing the right approaches are in place for employees to engage safely without the conversations becoming a distraction.

If you’re a leader, give yourself a break. You were not trained or prepared for all the world has thrown at us since the beginning of 2020. You probably were not prepared how to handle conversations about politics at work. Get help. There are incredible culture consultants all around the world who are prepared to help you and your organization navigate. Basecamp has already announced they are seeking outside help now. You should too. OrgVitals has relationships with culture consultants and leadership coaches all over the world. We’re happy to make introductions, completely free of charge. 

Are you a culture consultant? OrgVitals is an end-to-end assessment solution for your clients. Learn more!