Workplace Political Tensions Persist in Trump’s First 100 Days

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By Genevieve Douglas

Tension arising from political discussions continues to plague workplaces 100 days into President Donald Trump’s administration. HR should prepare in case today’s political climate is here to stay.

Political discussions at work are causing employees discomfort and reducing productivity, Sarah Patrick, senior content strategist for D.C.-based research firm Clutch, told Bloomberg BNA via email April 27. Twelve percent of employees have been uncomfortable because of political expression at work in the time since the election and 31 percent say their company’s productivity level has decreased as a result, according to research conducted by Clutch.

“Even though 12 percent may seem like a small amount of employees experiencing discomfort, it’s important to remember that one employee’s discomfort may affect how other employees interact at work,” Patrick said, and as political discussions become more and more divisive, business managers and human resources professionals may be forced to tackle issues concerning political expression in the workplace more frequently.

But despite these negative effects of political discussion, HR’s attempts to curb political chatter may not be working. Nearly half (45 percent) of the 1,000 full-time employees surveyed by Clutch in March stated that their organization had a policy or guidelines regarding political expression in the workplace. “It’s difficult—nearly impossible—to implement a policy that monitors employee expression at all times,” Patrick said.

Employees also may not agree with a move to limit their political expression, she said. Clutch found that overall sentiment about having a policy varied, with 33 percent of respondents agreeing that a policy should exist, 36 percent neutral, and 31 percent disagreeing about having an HR policy.

Civility, Opportunity in the Tension

In the wake of the 2016 election, there has been an uptick in employers and in-house counsel requests for civility training, as recommended by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s proposed guidance on harassment, Maria Greco Danaher, shareholder in the Pittsburgh office of Ogletree Deakins, told Bloomberg BNA April 27.

“Civility in the workplace really just boils down to clear, mindful and ethical communication,” and HR should strive to become more aware of and do more training on communication, Greco Danaher said. Managers and leaders of companies, in particular, need to understand the value of cooperative dialogue, and that will filter down to employees in general, she said. Without the cooperation of the C-suite, however, HR won’t see adoption of these policies and workplace techniques companywide, she said.

The issue is “broader than just people’s emotions being expressed in a way” that brings uncivil discourse, Greco Danaher said. “We all have to be more aware of what we say in the workplace” and that is especially true when there are generational differences of communication, she said. “People have to start adapting their communication style to the various groups with which they are communicating.”

Overall, HR might try to view political discourse tension as an opportunity, Greco Danaher said. “We’ve been treating post-election negative speech as a problem, but I think we’re being faced with an opportunity and an eye-opener that could really help us to use clear communication and mindful communication in a way to make businesses run more smoothly and make workplaces feel more efficient and effective to the people that are in them,” she said.

HR as Referee?

HR’s role in managing employees who feel uncomfortable or unhappy at work because of political discussions depends on the company itself and the situation at hand, Patrick said. HR professionals who participated in the Clutch study recommended different approaches for addressing political expression at work, such as implementing formal, written policies, holding one-on-one conversations or making informal announcements at meetings on a case-by-case basis, she said.

For many HR departments, the decision to implement formal guidelines depended largely on company characteristics, such as size, Patrick added. Most of the respondents who said their company had guidelines or a policy worked at larger enterprises, she said.

“The tendency for larger companies to implement formal political expression policies may be a result of enterprises’ greater risk of facing lawsuits, more employees with clashing opinions, less ability to address issues one-on-one, and more resources to develop and carry out an HR policy,” Patrick said.

HR departments in any organization, however, should be aware of any legal implications when it comes to limiting expression and consult with a labor and employment attorney before implementing any policies, Patrick said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Genevieve Douglas in Washington at gdouglas@bna.com

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

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