If you’re an HR Manager, you’re probably cringing right now. Politics in the workplace is never a good idea, especially when it comes to maintaining HR compliance. That is unless, of course, you’re running a political campaign or working for a lobbyist group.
Unfortunately, the reality is that what may seem harmless on the surface, such as an innocent political conversation, can quickly turn into a broken coworker relationship, even resulting in harassment and discrimination allegations. It’s challenging to censor free political speech and monitor employees, but the fallout of heated political discussions can also lead to a hostile work environment.
So what’s a company to do when it comes to HR compliance and politics?
“Don’t Talk Politics” Policies Fall Short for HR Compliance
While you might feel the temptation to institute a no political discussion policy at work, this falls short. First, you would need to discuss what defines political speech. The First Amendment protects the right to discuss politics freely, but it doesn’t supersede private businesses’ rights to enforce any types of policies that address employee behavior. There are very few exceptions, but generally, political speech and any aftermath or result that occurs falls under employee behavior when it comes to HR compliance.
However, Human Resources departments then carry the burden of defining what political speech is and then determining the consequences after the damage is already done, which makes HR compliance a mess.
Personal Bias and Political Impressions at Work
Before people made declarations and statements about their political affiliations, their subtle messages can quickly make coworkers form opinions about their political beliefs. Everyone is susceptible to personal bias, as our brains develop lightning-fast assumptions. Teach employees to understand and account for their personal political and social preferences.
Humankind evolved to develop biases to protect us from immediate dangers. Our ancestors processed things such as seeing the threat; we run away and fight or hide. However, the same mechanisms in our advanced brains cause humans to make instant decisions about others based on small cues, causing us to form prejudices to defend our minds from anything that violates our core belief system. So this means that biases are a completely natural part of the human thought process in many ways.
Unfortunately, biased thinking is difficult to fight. The damage is already done long after the words or actions are expressed or conveyed, and usually following up only serves to reignite the wound, ultimately causing more damage.
While HR can limit political signage at work, they can’t restrict employees from having political bumper stickers or even political social media posts. Even if employees happen to see a political heading at work and make a small comment, this can lead to bias viewpoints and contention.
If you have deja vu and think that much of what you’re reading in this article mimics anti-harassment training modules, it’s because it does. Political ideologies stem from human’s core beliefs and what they believe is fundamentally right and wrong. When we think our core beliefs are under attack, our minds go into a personal safety mode similar to what happens when someone experiences harassment. The unconscious bias puts our brain into a heightened defense mode, labeling the offending party as “bad” or “unsafe,” where we abandon higher reasoning and take on a fight or flight response. When political beliefs have an army of followers, it’s easier to stick with a viewpoint that thousands share rather than being outnumbered and bullied.
Taking a Proactive Approach to Address Politics
Now that you understand more about political bias in the workplace let’s focus on a proactive approach to addressing politics.
To keep your workplace entirely free of political bias would mean limiting all personal interaction, which isn’t practical or healthy. Employees need interaction to be physically and mentally fit. We know that it’s impossible to have a workplace utterly free of politics, especially in today’s day and age. To make sure that employees can work together and trust one another, institute these three effective strategies despite their political beliefs.
1. Mitigating the Negative Effects of Workplace Bias
As humans, it’s impossible to eradicate and eliminate personal biases. However, with the proper instruction and structure, your employees can put their political beliefs aside and work together towards common goals.
- Hiring – When hiring employees, putting the decision in groups’ hands instead of a single person. Have employees participate in reading resumes, job applications online and the interview process, giving everyone a chance to reach a mutual consensus about new hires.
- Performance – Decide performance criteria in advance while obtaining feedback from multiple people. Record all performance data from self, coworker and manager evaluations, allowing employees to see that their performance doesn’t rest in the hands of one person. Make sure that all decision-making processes are fair and equal.
2. Teaching Emotional Intelligence
Daniel Goleman is a well-known psychologist that developed the emotional intelligence concept, which consists of five pillars.
- Self-Awareness – We can understand our emotions, including those that may arise from any personal biases.
- Self-Regulation – We can control our emotional impulses and consciously think before we respond or act.
- Motivation – We can forgo our sense of immediate gratification in favor of reaching long-term goals.
- Empathy – We can acknowledge another person’s point of view without calling into play their abilities or motivations.
- Social Skills – We can maintain our emotional intelligence principles in all types of social settings while helping those around us do the same.
Actions drive today’s politics on both sides, agitation for immediate change, questioning morals, motivations, and opponents’ competence.
We want to stress that having a strong political viewpoint is NOT a sign of low emotional intelligence. However, both sides’ strong political views can elicit inappropriate emotional responses if the person does not have the right personal controls in place to counteract biases. If your employees value discussing politics in the workplace more than avoiding workplace conflict, this is a sign that they need help improving their social skills so they can become better teammates and work together.
HR departments can take this time to explore more concepts such as empathy and motivation. As human beings, we are all entitled to our own opinions, and opinions are just that – with no right or wrong side. People can listen to those they disagree with and understand that they are entitled to their perspective.
3. Develop A Healthy Values-Based Culture Around HR Compliance
Regularly review your company’s values. Do you encourage employees to develop emotional intelligence so they can work better together?
Building core values and training both current and new employees about the importance of values in our workplace culture help stabilize companies in the long-term without sacrificing expression or diversity. As future turnover happens, if you have a solid values-based foundation, this will stand on its own, without relying on any political employee balance.
Stopping political damage before it starts begins with teaching employees the necessary principles to help them better manage their self-expression and perceptions to prevent damage from occurring.
Learn more by reading this helpful article by SHRM.
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