Political Discussion at Work Remains Civil, Poll Finds

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine

April 5 — In this raucous election season, ordinary employees at U.S. companies are doing a much better job of keeping a civil tongue than the presidential candidates, a survey by Chicago-based outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas finds.

“Zero human resources executives reported heated or disrespectful workplace debates,” the company said in an April 5 news release announcing the results of a survey of 150 HR executives conducted in March.

Political discussions in the workplace are not exactly rare, with 94 percent of the surveyed HR executives having witnessed them. Nearly two-thirds of the executives (63.6 percent) described the political talk as “mostly congenial and respectful,” and the rest said the discussions were “passionate, but still respectful.”

Thus, it may not be surprising that just 3.1 percent of respondents said their companies have official or unofficial guidelines about talking politics at work, and only another 12.5 percent said they've talked about having such policies.

More Talk Than in Past

An attorney said that employers are hearing more political talk in the workplace now than in recent years.

“From our perspective and based on what our clients are telling us, it's coming up a lot more” at present than at any time in the past several years, Philippe Weiss, managing director at Seyfarth Shaw at Work, the management-side law firm's compliance services and training subsidiary, told Bloomberg BNA April 5.

This has a number of potentially damaging effects, he said. “It has created cliques in the workplace,” and one retail client reported that half of recent customer comments had to do with overhearing political discussions between salespeople and other customers.

Rather than ban politics in the workplace outright, Weiss suggests, “focus on the positive” by instructing employees to concentrate on performance.

“While you can’t prevent an employee from expressing his or her beliefs, you can focus on the fact that your workplace may not be the appropriate forum for such conversations,” Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer of Chicago-based jobs website CareerBuilder, told Bloomberg BNA in an April 5 e-mail. CareerBuilder was not affiliated with the survey.

Is Having Policy a Good Policy?

“Political chatter that gets too heated can hurt both the employee and the company, so having a policy on these discussions, or a broad anti-harassment policy, is encouraged,” Haefner said. “Some companies explicitly discourage discussions of flammable political topics such as abortion, others are vaguer because of the risks of free speech in the office. What’s written in the policy is dependent on your culture; what’s important is that it’s communicated to employees.”

Challenger, Gray & Christmas offered advice that was more anodyne, such as ensuring that political discussions at work stay civil, not discriminating against employees based on their political views and that “career-wise, it is probably safer to converse with those who share your views.”

Employers should be careful about getting too specific in banning political speech, however, Weiss said. That's because talk about unions, health coverage and other political issues is protected under labor laws, he said. The good news for many employers is “their existing policies cover a lot of this stuff in a way that's safe,” for example, by barring solicitation, inappropriate use of electronic resources and harassment.

“I think employers should be very cautious about trying to create formal policies governing informal workplace conversations,” Bruce Barry, professor of management and sociology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and author of the book “Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace,” told Bloomberg BNA in an April 5 e-mail. “In my view, attempts to regulate conversation, especially informal private ones (even occurring at the workplace, where people do have such conversations) strikes me as risky and difficult and ill-advised.”

“Workplace policies that seek in general terms to induce norms of civility and tolerance are certainly reasonable and appropriate, but attempts to single out specific topics as appropriate or inappropriate for casual conversation strike me as likely to provoke more controversy rather than dilute it,” he added.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at mbermangorvine@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at tharris@bna.com