How to deal with political tensions in the workplace

With a general election approaching, Raconteur has surveyed UK workers about their attitudes towards discussing politics in the office. Would a ban on such conversations ever be the right measure for an employer to implement?

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British etiquette dictates that there are three subjects one should avoid broaching in polite company: money, religion and politics. But, given that a general election is likely this year, the last of these may soon become a big topic of discussion in UK workplaces.

This can pose problems for emp­loyers. With politicians increasingly prepared to foment the culture war in recent years, political debates are becoming ever more divisive. If ­conversations about polarising ­topics spill into the workplace, they risk causing disputes between colleagues and impairing teamwork.

Despite this, most people aren’t shy about discussing politics in the office. A recent Raconteur survey of 1,000 UK workers in partnership with Attest (a consumer research platform based in London and New York), has found that 67% of respondents are either very or somewhat comfortable about doing so. Only 15% are uncomfortable.

“Over the past five years, there has been a big push from organisations to enable employees to speak up and bring their whole selves to work,” observes Megan Reitz, associate ­fellow at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. “It’s no great surprise that the nature of our workplace conversations has changed. Cultural norms and what’s acceptable at work have been chucked up in the air quite a bit.”

It’s not only that employees are becoming more vocal. They’re also increasingly keen for their CEOs to take a stance on political matters. This is particularly true of younger people: 18- to 24-year-olds are three times more likely than those aged 55 to 64 to want their bosses to ­discuss such issues openly.

Despite this growing pressure, business leaders should speak out about “appropriate and legitimate” ­topics only, stresses N Craig Smith, chaired professor of ethics and social responsibility at the Insead business school.

“You certainly don’t want business leaders speaking out on every issue that arises,” he says. “That would be distracting from what they’re supposed to be doing and, probably, neither appropriate nor helpful.”

A 33-year-old solicitor, who works for a UK-based law firm and asked not to be named, offers a case in point. She reports being left “appalled” by a senior colleague when they stated that they “could not imagine anything worse” than their daughter coming out as trans.

“I couldn’t believe this was being said in the workplace,” she recalls.

This did not lead directly to a confrontation, but 19% of the survey respondents say they have fallen out with a colleague over political differences. Among those aged 18 to 24, the proportion rises to 25%.

“If you’ve invited people to speak up, you need to be prepared for the consequences,” Reitz warns.

Workplace bans

The response from employers has sometimes been draconian. In 2019, Basecamp made headlines after its CEO, Jason Fried, banned all “societal and political discussions” from workplace communications, for instance. A year later, crypto­currency exchange Coinbase took a similar stance when it outlined its rules for an apolitical employee ­culture. About 60 people quit both businesses as a result of the changes.

These sorts of blanket bans remain relatively rare: about 10% of survey respondents have been banned by their employers from talking about politics or other contentious topics in the workplace.

Although it is legal for an employer to restrict the types of conversations its employees engage in at work if it has a reasonable concern that such discussions could create a ­hostile environment or damage the organisation’s reputation, such a policy can create “all sorts of trouble” for businesses, Reitz warns. Particularly when they come alongside a period where organisations and their leaders are becoming more outspoken on political topics

The main problem is the lack of clarity about which topics could be considered political. This makes it particularly tricky for the employer to police a ban effectively. “What is political is very subjective. This can create misunderstandings about what is and isn’t allowed at work,” Reitz says. “The risk is that people will still have those conversations, but they will just go underground and pop up far more explosively further down the line.”

Other restrictive policies, such as bans on the wearing of garments carrying political slogans or logos or on the display of political para­phernalia are slightly more common (reported by 18% and 16% of respondents respectively). Overall, 42% have had at least one such restriction imposed by an employer.

Smith notes that the nature of the employees’ work can determine whether such policies are apt. “You don’t want staff in customer-­facing roles to be arguing about whatever political issue is riling people at the time – the Israel-Gaza war or Brexit, for instance,” he says. “In that context, you may need quite stringent measures in place.”

Defusing political fallout

Nonetheless, many firms’ HR policies are ill-equipped to deal with the polarised nature of modern politics. That’s the view of Sophie Clifford, principal consultant at work behaviour and culture specialists Byrne Dean.

“For several years, companies have simply told their employees to be respectful of everyone’s opinions, but that is clashing with how strongly people feel about current issues,” she reports. “Employers are terribly nervous, because all they have to fall back on are these loose and ineffective policies.”

Firms should also equip employees with the necessary skills for holding contentious conversations, according to Terez Rijkenberg, chief people officer at transformation consultancy Socium10X. These include emotional regulation, empathetic listening and critical thinking.

She warns that an outright ban on political conversations could lead to increased feelings of suppression and discontent. Such sentiments are particularly strong among gen-Z respondents, who are 50% more likely than average to report being prevented by their employer from airing their political views at work. “Rather than avoiding political discussions, organisations should embrace them as an opportunity to strengthen their culture,” Rijkenberg argues.

Stifling dissent is rarely a successful ploy. Businesses do best when they listen to a wide range of views. Teaching employees the skills to engage in constructive dialogue with those who hold different opinions should help to reduce the risk of inter-colleague conflict and also encourage more productive interactions.

As Reitz notes: “If the people in your business are incapable of having a conversation where they disagree with one another, you have much bigger issues.”