Politics in the workplace: how should we deal with opposing views?

The trouble started, Johnny C Taylor Jr believes, when employers started encouraging people to bring their whole selves to work.

Taylor is not some crusty hangover from a conformist age where staff were expected to keep their personal views to themselves: the former head of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund for historically black US colleges and universities runs the Society for Human Resource Management, which represents HR professionals around the world.

As that inclusive management mantra took hold, he says, employees took it literally, bringing the language, the clothing and the political biases they once left at home to offices and factories each morning.

It is the last of those imports that is causing SHRM’s members more trouble than they ever imagined. As voters become more polarised, the people managing them are “struggling mightily”, says Taylor, to contain their passionate political disagreements.

The HR profession has long preached the value of different backgrounds and world views to a business world where managers once preferred to hire people who looked and thought like themselves, he observes. “What we underestimated is that inclusion would be made very, very difficult by diversity.”

Even as CEOs have become vocal on polarising topics from racial justice to abortion, we have paid less attention to the tensions those subjects are causing within their organisations where, in Taylor’s words, “employees say ‘I want to come to work and share my full displeasure with the Supreme Court decision [overturning Americans’ constitutional right to an abortion] but I don’t want my colleague to do the same damn thing’.” 

An upsurge in disputes between individuals of opposing views has led to workers asking managers to fire colleagues “because they don’t fit” and prospective recruits walking away because they don’t feel aligned with the organisation’s values, Taylor warns.

It has also led to some ill-fated attempts to make politics off limits in working hours.

Last month, for example, The New York Times reported that Meta had told staff not to discuss the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe vs Wade because “discussing abortion openly at work has a heightened risk of creating a hostile work environment”.

Coinbase and Basecamp triggered employee walkouts after trying something similar in the past two years, while Goodyear Tire and Rubber faced a backlash after banning workers from wearing Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again hats.

When you dig into the costs of workplace polarisation you can understand the temptation to try to silence the debates that divide so many teams. SHRM found that 41 per cent of US employees have quit jobs at some point because they felt their values were being stigmatised.

Many more feel disengaged when surrounded by colleagues they disagree with, adds Jeff Jolton, head of research and insights for Kincentric, a leadership development and employee research group owned by Spencer Stuart.

The “talent uprising” that has driven the Great Resignation has seen more people try to align their work with their values, notes Jolton’s colleague, Seymour Adler. That’s a problem if your colleagues hold fundamentally different values.

What, then, should managers do if they find team members at odds with each other? Top-down announcements prohibiting political discussion are not the answer: a recent Morning Consult poll found that just one in five Americans advocated companies responding this way to the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling.

The better approach is managing those conversations, Taylor believes. That starts by reiterating a company’s commitment to diversity — including political diversity.

The alternative to including differing viewpoints is groupthink, Adler points out, whereas developing “the ability to disagree well” can even make a company more innovative, as Megan Reitz and John Higgins wrote in the Harvard Business Review last year.

Disagreeing well is the key, however. “When an employee exhibits behaviours inconsistent with what our values are, we get rid of them,” Taylor says bluntly, explaining the need to insist that employees remain civil.

Some managers convene listening sessions whenever politics starts intruding on work, but Taylor doubts that these always help. Discussions can quickly turn into debates, which each side is looking to win, he warns: “On most of these issues, no one comes to have a discussion.” 

Some conflicts simply erode collaboration, Adler echoes, so leaders have the right to set “guardrails”, or a shared vision of what employees should all be driving towards, to ensure that people remain focused on getting the work done. Besides, Jolton adds, that vision is “a big element of what people want from leadership”.

Persuading an employee with strongly held opinions to empathise with another’s opposing point of view is hard at any time. Doing so in the context of our current political divides is even tougher.

But even as polls show voters becoming more polarised, they also show them craving less polarisation. If managers get this right, our workplaces might just play a role in driving towards that common goal.

andrew.edgecliffe-johnson@ft.com



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