Can we discuss politics or other controversial topics at work?

Christina Pavlou | |

Let’s say that one of your employees posts a racist joke on their personal social media page. Even if it was meant by that employee to be funny, many people could be offended. But, at the same time, this employee has never expressed such views in the workplace. What would you do? Should you reprimand employees if they display inappropriate behavior outside the office?

That’s not a totally hypothetical scenario. A few days ago, a school employee was removed from the campus after yelling “build a wall” at a group of striking teachers, despite her claiming that her reaction was meant to be funny and not racist. That’s not all: back in 2015, an employee in Toronto was fired after allegedly defending another man who verbally harassed a female reporter with vulgar sexual references. His company based the decision to fire him on their zero-tolerance policy on discrimination and harassment, regardless of whether you’re in the workplace or not.

But, soon, the story raised some questions. What if this was an unfortunate incident, a one-time mistake for which the employee expressed genuine remorse and took active steps to make up for it? Considering that it happened outside the company (and there was no association with its brand) and that this particular employee had no previous history offending anyone at work, could the punishment be excessive? In fact, the Toronto company decided to rehire this employee after he made amends by apologizing to the female reporter and enrolling to sensitivity training.

Was the company right to rehire him? Should or shouldn’t they fire him in the first place? Everyone, yourself included, has different opinions here. And that’s exactly the challenge: things are not always black or white. So when you have to deal with controversial topics at work, how do you maintain a comfortable environment between employees?

That story might have been unique, but it’s not uncommon to come across awkward situations in the workplace. Inevitably, at some point, we’ll discuss major breaking news, such as a terrorist attack or the election of a new, controversial leader. Inevitably, we’ll get a hint of our colleagues’ political or religious beliefs just by randomly seeing their social media accounts. We may even hear gossip about a coworker’s personal life. If we don’t like what we learn about them or if we don’t agree with what they say, will we – or can we – look at them the same way the next day or week or month?

Let’s keep it professional

One solution would be to ban all kinds of non-job related discussions and avoid bringing up controversial topics at work. Politics have no place in a business setting. We’re here to do our job and go home. There’s no need to engage in polarizing topics, such as elections or LGBTQ rights.

In cases, though, of high-impact political or socio-economic changes, it’s hard not to take a stand. Think of GrubHub’s CEO who asked employees who agree with Donald Trump’s views to resign after the elections of November 8, or that pizzeria in London that offered a discount to supporters of a second Brexit referendum.

These examples might not happen every day, but the reality remains: you can’t control what employees talk about during breaks or when they leave the office. You could pretend that they don’t discuss politics. You could pretend that they’re comfortable with each other’s background. You could pretend that their occasional disagreements are fueled strictly by job-related issues. But this approach might not be as realistic as you’d like it to be.

Surely, in the office, we (should, ideally) focus on employees’ professional behavior and the result of their work. But, we are not one-dimensional beings; we’re a blend of traits, beliefs and reactions. These aspects – often, the differences between our own and other people’s aspects – shape our opinions. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we form biases.

Consider these scenarios:

Scenario 1: Mike posts online that the #metoo movement has turned women into “feminazis”. A few days later, during a meeting, Cassandra presents her idea but Mike rejects it. Cassandra thinks that this has to do with Mike’s personal views, not because her idea was not good enough.

Scenario 2: It’s the day after the Brexit referendum in a UK company. Employees discuss the results and wonder how people could vote for the EU exit. Nathan stays in silence as he is in favor of Brexit but is afraid that expressing this unpopular view alongside his colleagues’ prevailing opinions will result in his isolation.

Scenario 3: During lunch break, Alex overhears a couple of coworkers making offensive comments about the LGBTQ community. Kyle, Alex’s assistant, is among them. Alex is transgender. Next week, it’s the annual performance review and Alex has to decide whether to give Kyle a raise or not.

Scenario 4: Candice is thinking to apply for an internal position at her company – it’s her chance to move her career forward. Before applying, she’s doing some research on her potentially new manager, Bart. To her surprise, Bart’s Facebook page is filled with body-shaming jokes. Candice is obese. She now has second thoughts about this job.

Ignorance is (?) bliss

Sometimes we wish we didn’t know how our colleagues vote, what they think about controversial topics or where they spend their free time. Because as soon as we find out something we don’t like, our opinion on that colleague could change. And this happens more often than you may think.

We don’t have to make profound discussions with our colleagues or dig into each other’s personal life to learn their standpoints. In between the (more than) two hours that we spend on social media daily, it’s common to stumble upon a coworker’s profile. And, as we casually scroll down their feed, we might notice their latest post commenting political news or a snarky tweet about the people of a foreign country they visited recently.

Even if some people don’t openly share their views online, it’s easy to jump into conclusions (whether right or wrong) based on social media activity: Holiday pictures “tell” us what our coworkers like to do during their free time, who they hang out with, what they eat and what they wear. One single ‘like’ of an account that engages in political vitriol is enough to build this person’s profile; we may assume they’re politically hostile. Or, if they follow a reality TV star, they must be really superficial, right?

And it goes beyond social media. In real life, too, we judge people based on how they reacted (or how they did not react) after a shocking election result. We make small talk and discuss our weekend plans – if I mention that I’ll be binge-watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, what will my conservative colleague think of me? And, next time, should my aforementioned colleague refrain from asking me how I spent my weekend, or even avoid me in general so that we don’t risk having an uncomfortable chat?

We are emotional creatures

We might be wrong to like or dislike someone based on their political or religious views, their nationality, their gender, their sexual orientation, their appearance or even their lifestyle. But we can’t deny that we are influenced by all these factors. And when we have to work together, manage or be managed, evaluate or be evaluated, things can get complicated.

When the opinions we form about our colleagues impact our professional relationships with them, we can’t pretend anymore that the work environment is immune to polarizing topics such as same-sex marriage, Brexit or Trump.

This doesn’t mean that whenever we have a different opinion about politics with a colleague, we should fight with them. It doesn’t mean that we should stay silent when we come across disrespectful behaviors either. We should recognize that, as humans, we have differences, but as coworkers we have one goal: to do our best job.

And we can’t do our best job unless we leave biases behind.

So, how do we remove biases?

First, we need to acknowledge that there are differences. And, then, we need to accept those differences. Before we judge our coworkers for their opposing opinions, let’s go a step back and consider where their viewpoints come from. Perhaps they grew up in a totally different environment than we did and this shaped their way of thinking. Or, perhaps we talk from an overly privileged point of view when we say that racism or sexism don’t exist in our workplace.

But people from underrepresented groups might experience things a bit differently. The Winters Group, a diversity and inclusion consulting firm, ran webinars in the light of #BlackLivesMatter” and the 2016 US presidential election and employees gave their perspective. Here are two testimonials, as presented in the book “We Can’t Talk about That at Work!”:

I came to work the day after the Philando Castile killing and I said to my boss that I was pretty upset, and I got nothing, not even an acknowledgment. This really shook me up and now I don’t know if I can really trust her.

– African American male at large consulting company

I am the only person of Middle Eastern descent on my team. I overhear conversations about terrorists, but they never discuss that with me. As a matter of fact, I think they purposefully avoid such conversations around me. It makes me feel isolated. I don’t really feel like I am a part of the team.

– Muslim engineer at a large technology company

Biased perspectives not only affect our work relationships; they can also hinder employee performance. As Ayn Rand said: “You can avoid reality, but you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality”. If we pretend that we’re not biased or that we don’t bring our biases in the workplace, we risk having coworkers who feel unsafe at work; we risk creating a work environment where not all employees are equally treated; we risk widening the gap between dominant and minority groups.

In modern work environments, where employees are diverse (coming from different countries and cultures) inclusion is a top priority. CEOs have the power to implement a zero-tolerance mentality when it comes to disrespectful behaviors and to encourage open discussions around equity – like the AT&T CEO who gave an impactful speech against racism.

HR can play its part, too. It has the word “human” in its name, after all. As humans, we’re driven by our emotions, but we’re also capable of managing and controlling them. And this will happen as long as we cultivate our emotional intelligence. We don’t need to agree on everything; we just need to show mutual respect and accept the fact that we’re different.

How can HR help with that? By implementing non-biased hiring strategies, by organizing trainings on diversity and by setting an example for others to follow. In taking leadership and showing it, the top brass and HR can see to it that the workplace becomes a more inclusive, collaborative environment.

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Christina Pavlou

Christina is a writer at Workable, previously a recruiter. She writes about diversity in the workplace and reports on the shape of things to come. She tweets @ChristinaPaulou.

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