U.S. Presidential Election Distracts Employees

November 18, 2020

Contributor: Brian Kropp

Act now to minimize the disruptive effects of U.S. politics in the workplace.

Who said, “Never discuss politics in polite company?” We might need to say the same of the workplace after our recent survey showed that many U.S. employees are discussing politics ahead of the November general election, quite a few find those exchanges stressful, and even more are actually avoiding a colleague because of their political views.

The data clearly shows that politics is already negatively affecting workplace productivity, collaboration and employee morale. I only expect things to get worse as the 2020 U.S. presidential election approaches.

In 2020, employees are critical stakeholders in our organizations. They expect more conscious action and policy from us, particularly in times of social and political change. To minimize the negative impacts of politics on the workplace, HR leaders and managers need to see this disruption as a matter of employee engagement and experience

Read more: Corporate Advocacy of Social Issues Can Drive Employee Engagement

3 ways to minimize politics-related hostility

To accommodate increased political expression and activity in the workplace, and avoid a hostile work environment or a distracted and disengaged workforce, I suggest that HR leaders focus on three areas:

1. Establish political-expression policies 

Although you need to verify federal, state and local laws that may have implications on regulating employee speech or activity, we recommend that HR leaders use their organization’s culture as a guide to determine what types of regulations to put in place around political expression in the workplace. 

A well-written policy will clearly articulate acceptable and prohibited activities and any disciplinary action if policy is broken. Consider which forms of political expression are most likely to have the greatest impact on the workplace, rather than attempting to shut down all forms of political expression. Make sure managers enforce policies consistently.

2. Emphasize diversity and inclusion

Make sure employees aren’t mistreated for their political opinions and beliefs. Poor treatment includes name-calling, being treated unfairly or ostracized. 

Emphasize the organization’s commitment to ensuring a safe and inclusive work environment for all employees via their commitment to diversity and inclusion. Create a space for safe, relevant communication about the election and reinforce existing policies, processes and programs on workplace abuse, discrimination, harassment and bullying. 

Read more: Build a Sense of Belonging in the Workplace

3. Equip managers

Managers are a crucial part of how organizations can mitigate risks associated with political expression in the workplace. Help managers to support employees by taking these steps:

  • Sense and respond to the need for support. Help managers recognize signs of distress among their employees, both directly (through conversations) and indirectly (through observation). 
  • Monitor political discussions. Partner with managers to monitor political discussions and manage sensitive political conversations between team members.  
  • Model the right behaviors to reduce the likelihood of misconduct. Ensure that managers at all levels understand organizational values and ethical standards so that they can effectively communicate and demonstrate them across the organization.

What the data shows

We will be surveying employees regularly in the months leading up to the U.S. presidential election to continue to understand how politics and the election are affecting U.S. workplaces

Among the findings from our February 2020 poll of 500 employees across the U.S.:

  • 91% of employees said they either personally talk about politics at work or overhear others discussing politics at work. 
  • 47% said the election had impacted their ability to get work done (26% say the impact is moderate or large).
  • 33% now spend more time than they did accessing political news while at work.
  • 36% say they avoid talking to or working with a co-worker because of their political views.
  • 24% say the topic of the presidential election has led them to argue about politics with their co-workers.
  • 29% witnessed at least one instance in which a co-worker was treated in a way they felt was unacceptable because of their political beliefs
  • 31% of those who talk politics at work say these conversations are stressful or frustrating.
  • At organizations with political expression policies, over 75% of employees agree with those policies.

Brian Kropp is Distinguished Vice President, HR Research at Gartner and oversees the research, tools, services and support that Gartner provides to CHROs and their leadership teams. 

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