The big debate: should political discussions be banned in the workplace?

Business leaders are grappling with how to prevent polarising topics from causing rifts among colleagues. As political and social issues become more divisive, is an outright ban on political discussions ever the right measure for an employer to take?

As it becomes harder to avoid discussions about important political and social issues happening in the world, companies are grappling with how to prevent polarising topics from causing rifts among colleagues.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai is the latest leader to weigh in on the debate around political expression in the workplace, by ordering employees to leave their political opinions at home. He states that the office is not the place to “fight over disruptive issues and debate politics” or “act in a way that disrupts coworkers”. 

Google is not the first organisation to instigate strict policies around political discourse in the workplace. Meta also banned controversial chat in the office, including on topics such as gun rights and vaccines, when it introduced its community engagement expectations policy at the end of 2022.

Business leaders are responsible for creating a respectful work environment where productive conversations can be held. An outright ban on political conversation is one way of nipping any issues in the bud before they have a chance to spiral out of control and helps to set the tone for appropriate behaviour in a business setting. 

But it is difficult to draw an objective line around what counts as politics. Any attempts to do so risk backlash from staff who value a culture of open discussion – and even healthy disagreement. Case in point, when cryptocurrency company Coinbase said it would not allow discussions of politics and social issues at work anymore, staff walked out. 

A recent Raconteur survey of 1,000 UK workers reveals that these sorts of blanket bans remain relatively rare. Only about 10% of survey respondents have been banned by their employers from talking about politics or other contentious topics in the workplace. But, as political debates become more divisive, could it ever be the right measure for an employer to implement?

Banning political conversation is not just futile, it’s near-impossible 

Elise Smith 
CEO and founder of immersive learning company Praxis Labs 

Let’s face it: our workforces are having political conversations whether we want them to or not. Banning these conversations is not just futile, it is near impossible. 

From what a colleague likes on social media to another team member expressing distress over a conflict mentioned in that morning’s news, the external world affects our lives and, by extension, our work. At the same time, we can’t underestimate the negative impact that political discussions can have on morale, performance and culture. Because these topics will come up, they will require someone to acknowledge and address them.

Managers are key to this conversation. They set the tone for respectful dialogue across organisations, showing that it’s possible to exchange ideas, challenge viewpoints and give feedback in a way that enriches our understanding of each other, rather than spurring division. 

Controversial topics will come up and will require someone to acknowledge and address them

The reality is that most managers are unprepared to navigate these moments. According to research by the Learning Consulting Partnership, 50% of managers cite difficult conversations as the biggest challenge they face, with 25% avoiding them altogether. When training on these topics is offered, it’s often reactive and designed to repair harm that’s already been done. The real question then becomes a matter of how we proactively train managers and ensure that we do it well. 

Active listening, demonstrating empathy, de-escalating tension and giving feedback are all critical skills and behaviours that help managers feel prepared to navigate these conversations. Don’t stop at training, give opportunities to practise so managers feel confident and less anxious when these conversations arise. 

Moreover, embracing open dialogue can propel our teams forward. Research by Gallup found that when employees feel comfortable sharing their identities and perspectives, they are 3.7 times more likely to be engaged at work. In turn, inclusive organisations are 3.8 times more likely to harness the full potential of their employees, according to the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the New Economy and Society. If we move to ban political conversations, we run the risk of undermining the very foundation of trust and inclusion that organisations sorely need right now. 

Rather than shy away from political discussions and pretend these conversations aren’t happening, let’s prepare with the right strategies and approaches. Let’s equip our teams and managers to listen, empathise and diffuse conflict. This is how we better our workplaces and reinforce our commitments to being forward-thinking, inclusive organisations where every voice truly matters.

A political ban avoids the potential for offence being caused in the first place

Kate Palmer 
Employment services director at HR consultancy firm Peninsula 

Managing political conversations in the workplace is always a difficult balance, as no employer wants to be deemed the ‘thought police’. However it is management’s responsibility to ensure that all employees are respected and treated equally, to keep an eye on any political discussions and to call out any inappropriate or insensitive comments that may offend colleagues. 

Everyone has an opinion on politics. What one person believes, another could find deeply offensive. Politicians have trouble finding common ground and employers can often find it difficult to walk the line between healthy discussion among colleagues and comments that leave someone feeling belittled, humiliated, or even discriminated against.

Regardless of personal opinions and political leanings, it’s important that the workplace remains a professional environment. This is why employers should take a zero-tolerance approach to any opinions or discussions that leave employees feeling victimised or offended. This can be especially true when it comes to ongoing conflicts, especially if employees have family members in the regions affected.

Employers should take a zero-tolerance approach to any discussions that leave employees feeling victimised

To help alleviate the potential for upset, some employers opt to ban political discussions altogether. Taking this approach can avoid the potential for offence being caused and prevent any subsequent disciplinary activity from needing to be taken. To do this effectively, employers must clearly communicate what is and isn’t acceptable in the workplace and what will happen if these rules are not followed. Take a zero-tolerance approach to any discussions that belittle, humiliate, or discriminate against anyone and ensure that your rules are applied equally for all employees, regardless of political leaning.

Remember, philosophical beliefs are protected under the Equality Act 2010. So if you do take disciplinary action you will need to demonstrate that it was because of the behaviour exhibited rather than the belief itself.

At the end of the day, we are all human beings trying to do our best. Encouraging people to share their life experiences and the reasons behind their beliefs can open a healthy dialogue about cultural differences and personal experiences. If the team has a richer and deeper understanding of each other, it’s easier to manage when disagreements arise.