5 Ways to Support Employees and Managers Amid Political and Social Unrest

January 12, 2021

Contributor: Caroline Walsh

To preserve employee well-being in times of political and social disruption, manage negative emotions, establish appropriate political expression policies and create safe spaces for dialogue.

The current landscape the U.S. — and around the world — is a reminder that the turmoil we experienced in 2020 and 2021 can flare up at any time, and the emotional well-being of employees is at stake.

Early last year, Gartner surveys showed that U.S. presidential campaigning was damaging employee morale, collaboration and productivity many months before election day. The day after the vote, 64% of U.S. employees said the results made them feel anxious.

“When the potential for tension among co-workers is high, it’s even more important to be proactive, candid and authentic”

Surveys on Brexit showed a similar response among EU and U.K. employees at the time. And, in mid-2020, protests demanding diversity, equity and inclusion erupted around the world, requiring organizations to engage authentically with unnerved employees on a range of complex and often emotional issues.

Download Guide: How HR Leaders Support Employees During Change and Uncertainty 

The common theme in these disruptions is that they relate to deeply held and potentially divisive personal beliefs. But organizational leaders can’t afford to be timid when issues might be contentious. In fact, when the potential for tension among co-workers is high, it’s even more important to be proactive, candid and authentic. Here are five ways to do that.

No. 1: Help employees manage negative emotions

Employees feel a range of negative emotions after divisive events, including fear, anger, devastation and anxiety. While many employees will turn to their managers for support, many managers are ill-equipped to handle these conversations, especially when in a virtual environment.

Senior management and HR should remind managers to model appropriate behaviors and set the right tone by speaking candidly about their own experiences — which also reduces the stigma of openly discussing mental well-being. 

Look to HR for resources that can be shared directly with employees. For example, one Gartner client provided a guide to the emotional stages people commonly go through during times of great change. Efforts such as this show help to demonstrate how the organization empathizes with employees and supports their well-being.

No. 2: Establish appropriate expression policies

Expression policies help to ensure a safe and productive work environment for all — and such policies are popular with most employees. At organizations with political expression policies, over 75% of employees agree with them. HR leaders often take the lead in crafting such policies, but communications leaders also have a key role to play. 

Keys to an effective political expression policy include:

  • Be specific, clear and concise, specifying goals, prohibited activities, language and behaviors, and laying out what disciplinary action will be taken if the policy is broken. Clarity ensures that there’s no confusion among managers and employees. 
  • Align to organizational culture and values to reinforce employees’ existing expectations and avoid confusion and conflict. Align messaging in both internal and external communications.
  • Be reasonable. Consider which forms of political expression are most likely to have the greatest impact on your workplace. Attempting to shut down all forms of political expression is ineffective and can result in negative consequences for the organization.
  • Communicate regularly to avoid any doubt among employees about what forms of political expression they can and cannot engage in and the consequences of unacceptable behavior.
  • Enforce consistently by training managers and leaders on what the policies mean and how to manage them.

No. 3: Create safe spaces for productive conversations

Eighty-four percent of U.S. employees report discussing politics in the workplace, but it’s difficult for an employee to know when, where and how to share thoughts and feelings about political events that they may not consider to be welcome at work. 

Create safe spaces for productive conversations in which employees feel free to express themselves. Establish standards and norms of communication, encourage employees to focus on common goals, and set examples of respect and civility.

Productive conversations should have clearly defined session objectives, such as:

  • Promoting greater understanding and connections across differences
  • Sharing and learning from others’ experiences
  • Developing an action plan to move forward

Set explicit guidelines to facilitate the session, including:

  • No recordings, no screenshots — this is a safe space.
  • Engage in dialogue, not debate.
  • Listen and contribute respectfully; don’t interrupt.

Remember to balance formal conversations led by leadership with informal, small-group or one-on-one conversations between individual employees. That balance can be especially difficult in a remote or hybrid workforce environment. 

Small-group conversations can be logistically difficult to create, but leadership-driven dialogue can escalate the emotional reactions of employees and increase communication fatigue. Encourage employees to reach out to peers and friends for unstructured conversations and to find additional support during emotionally turbulent times.

Read more: 9 Tips for Managing Remote Employees

No. 4: Communicate your action plan to employees

Employees, especially through resource groups and other affinity networks, have become increasingly vocal in urging organizations to communicate on societal issues. But a recent Gartner survey shows that employees are more likely to report higher satisfaction with their organizations’ responses to social and political issues when the response is action-oriented. 

In the U.S., 69% of employees were very satisfied when their organizations took action in response to the mid-2020 protests against racial injustice, compared to 50% who were very satisfied when their organization just issued a public statement.

It’s difficult for any organization or individual to know the exact actions to take amid the U.S. election turmoil, but communicate to employees a message that:

Acknowledges employees’ distraction and feelings 

Share resources with employees and managers on how to handle stress and conflict. For example: 

“The events of this week have been extremely emotional and tense for us all. It’s important to look out for our physical and emotional well-being. Let’s be kind and patient with one another. Please make use of our organization’s resources for emotional health and well-being. Also, please check on your colleagues; plan a virtual catch-up or coffee to take time to process recent events together.” 

Shares a plan for productive conversations

“Please join your colleagues for a Zoom conversation [time, date] to discuss the ongoing political unrest. We want to create a safe space for employees to be heard and understood by engaging in discussion. The conversation is open to all, and we encourage open dialogue with respect and understanding. Due to the nature of the discussion, this conversation will not be recorded.”

Reiterates the organization’s core values

“The next few weeks will be difficult. As individuals, we’ll continue to strive for the things we believe in. As a company, we’ll continue to serve our customers and strive for excellence.”

Identifies future steps the organization will take

“The leadership team will be meeting over the coming weeks to discuss how best to support those initiatives across the organization that we feel are essential to improving and maintaining employee well-being and encouraging corporate citizenship during these emotionally turbulent and politically charged times.”

No. 5: Don’t forget to support fatigued HR teams

Extreme fatigue already threatens leaders, managers and employees following a long year of disruption, distraction and unrest. The employment deal has evolved since COVID-19 struck, and progressive organizations are now working with employees on many fronts to increase both employee engagement and productivity. HR leaders and their teams have been integral to radical enterprise initiatives — from remote work and hybrid workforce models to COVID-19 vaccine strategy — but HR staff aren’t immune to professional or personal disruptions. 

HR leaders can provide support by hosting regular meetings with HR staff to give them time to discuss how they are personally handling their situation, clarify work priorities for the HR team and recalibrate expectations so HR staff handle only the most essential issues now. They should also consider developing a buddy system and leveraging existing mentoring relationships to help HR staff navigate disruptive situations and spot mental health stress in colleagues.

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Recommended resources for Gartner clients*:

How HR Can Support Employees Following January Political Unrest in the U.S.

How to Address Social and Political Distractions With Today’s Employees

How HR Can Support Managers During Times of Political Change and Uncertainty

Addressing the Emotional Well-Being of the HR Team in a Crisis

How CHROs Are Responding to Social and Political Movements Worldwide

How to Navigate Times of Political Change and Uncertainty

U.S. Election Prep: Assess Risks Across 5 Categories

*Note that some documents may not be available to all Gartner clients.

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