Workplace Tensions Rise as Election Day Nears

With less than a week until the presidential election, political tensions in the office have doubled, and HR is playing referee.

According to new research from the Society for Human Resource Management, more than one-half (52 percent) of organizations indicate that there is greater political volatility in the workplace in this presidential election compared to others, double the percentage who said the same thing in May (26 percent).

When asked to elaborate, 70 percent of surveyed HR professionals said employees were more concerned about the candidates than ever before, citing their employees’ impression that one candidate or the other seems unfit and expressing overall dissatisfaction with the election. Additionally, 60 percent of HR professionals said employees were more vocal about their political opinions, and 55 percent said employees believed that the presidential candidates were more polarizing than in previous years, according to SHRM.

Some 5 percent of HR professionals said employees at their organizations had violated policies on political activities at work, SHRM found. SHRM surveyed over 450 randomly selected HR professionals across the country.

These findings "are not terribly surprising given the rhetoric we hear" around this election, Evren Esen, SHRM’s director of workforce analytics, told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 2. Politics are definitely seeping into the workplace, despite that subject being one that employees typically shy away from to avoid conflict or disagreement, Esen said.

To prevent conflict, HR should consider setting boundaries, Rosemary Haefner, chief HR officer at online jobs website CareerBuilder, told Bloomberg BNA via e-mail Nov. 3.

For example, some companies have rules against soliciting campaign donations, posting political signs or holding political rallies in work areas, Haefner said, while others have policies that prohibit the wearing of campaign gear and clothing with political slogans, as well as expressing political views in work e-mails.

According to Haefner, it’s important for HR to recognize that there’s "a thin line between freedom of expression and a potential source of conflict." To encourage civil discussions, HR might want to consider conducting respect and dignity behavioral training for all employees, emphasizing tolerance for different ideas and beliefs, she said.

Even after the Nov. 8 election, the tensions may remain, Doug Walker, manager of HR services for Insperity in San Diego, told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 3. "I think that what we’re seeing is an increased level of stress that the political theme is part of," Walker said. "People are carrying heavy loads these days."

According to Walker, the most powerful way to control behavior in the workplace is through embracing company values. If companies have corporate values that they really practice and employees follow, a lot of behavior issues go away, or don’t even occur in the first place, he said.

One problem is that political conversations in particular can get heated very quickly because employees "think there’s a lot at stake," Walker said.

Haefner commented that "modeling the right behavior is imperative when in a leadership role," because subordinates often look up to their supervisors.

"As a manager your job is also to be a mentor. Employees should be learning from you. If employees see their managers’ water cooler chats getting heated, they’ll likely think that behavior is OK," she said.

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