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Ask the Evil HR Lady: Workplace tensions after Roe v. Wade overturned

This is the first of a new monthly series in which The Evil HR Lady addresses a HR question or challenging situation. This month, she focuses on workplace tensions resulting from the recent US Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade.

Suzanne Lucas
Suzanne Lucas

Suzanne, the Evil HR Lady, shares expertise, guidance, and insights based on 10+ years of experience in corporate human resources....

Ask the Evil HR Lady

Q: I thought we were a pretty apolitical office right up until the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Now it seems like everyone is a political activist, and feelings are hurt.

Is there any way to reduce the political tension in the office?

Yes, and it starts with leadership.

First, it’s vital that you know the facts surrounding Dobbs v. Jackson (the case that overturned Roe v. Wade). Your employees may or may not care about the facts – today, people seem to prefer whatever creative meme appears in their social media feed. But here are the facts.

Dobbs did not outlaw abortion. It returned the decision to the states, so every state is now subject to its own laws.

  • Only 5% of people report abortion as their top concern when it comes to voting
  • 40% support the Dobbs decision
  • 56% oppose the Dobbs decision
  • 4% are unsure
  • Support swings strongly based on political affiliation
  • 88% of Democrats oppose the decision
  • 70% of Republicans support the decision
  • All 50 states allow abortion when there is a threat to the mother’s health
  • There are currently more than 100 bills in various state legislatures – expect change

If your business operates in multiple states, you could have employees with very different situations. But it’s important to consider that even if you operate in the bluest of blue states or the reddest of red states, you likely have people working together from each side.

Now that you know the facts, let’s devise a solution for making things less tense at work.

Treat your employees like kids

This may seem like odd advice, but schools try to teach their teens how to communicate with each other when there is a contentious subject. You can easily transfer the principles that teenagers learn to your business.

Train your employees to remember the following things:

Don’t make it personal. While your employees may have personal experiences with abortion, try to focus on the policy implications rather than the personal ones. You’re mad/happy at what the Supreme Court did, not what your coworker did.

Avoid putting down the other person’s ideas and beliefs. You may have very strong feelings one way or the other, and you may be 100% convinced that your opinion is the right one. People on the other side feel the same way. Assume everyone came to their opinion out of the best of intentions. Never say, “you just want to control women” or “you just want to kill babies.”

Use “I” statements to communicate how you feel, what you think, and what you want or need. “I think that our state should implement X policy because…” is a much better way to approach this than, “you are just trying to [do a terrible thing] by creating this policy.”

Listen to the other point of view. Remind your employees that before they move on in the discussion, they need to be able to restate the other person’s position to their satisfaction. This keeps you from operating on your assumptions and makes you stay in reality. Remember, your coworkers are humans and not just talking points like politicians.

Stay calm. This is the most important thing you can do to keep a conversation. The louder you get, the less people listen to you. If you can’t stay calm, it’s time to exit the conversation.

Tell everyone to get back to work

Employees don’t have the right to discuss politics at work! In fact, with a few exceptions, employees in the private sector don’t have free speech while on the clock. You can tell them to leave the discussion for after work.

This can be a bit harsh, though. Rather than banning the topic, I recommend redirecting them back to the task at hand. “We’re never going to finish this report on wastewater if we keep focusing on politics.”

Remember state and federal laws

While employees don’t have the right to free speech at work, they have the right to be free from discrimination based on religion or lack of religion.. So, you can’t fire or discipline someone who disagrees with your position (or the company’s) if their objections are due to religion – yours or theirs – unless it would cause an undue hardship on the company.

For instance, if your company is one of the many that said they would cover the costs for an out-of-state abortion and your payroll person says it would violate her religious conscience to process the payments for that, you’d have to prove that having someone else do that task would be an undue hardship on the business before you could take negative action.

Likewise, if your company adopts a pro-life stance and wants everyone to stand in a picture proclaiming that your companies support life, you’d have to prove it was an undue hardship to the company to have someone not in the picture if she can argue that this stance is based on your religious beliefs. You can’t punish someone for disagreeing with you based on religion.

Some state laws go further and protect not only religious views but political views as well. For instance, California prohibits discrimination based on political views while North Dakota and Colorado outlaw discrimination against any lawful activity done outside of work. And Louisiana? You can’t discriminate against political views including your employee running for office.

So, if your loud-mouthed employee is leading marches in the street, as long as the march is legal, Colorado and North Dakota employers have to ignore it and ensure there is no retaliation.

If you want to take any disciplinary action against someone because of their views on the Dobbs decision, please consult with a local employment attorney to make sure you aren’t violating the law.

Related: Can we discuss politics or other controversial topics at work?

Set an example

The most important thing here is for HR and other leaders to set an example. If you’re rude, tear people down who disagree with you, or can’t focus on your work, then the rest of the company will follow. If you’re polite, disagree without being disagreeable, and focus on your work, everyone else will follow.

And while abortion is the hot topic right now, the midterm elections are heating up, so setting a good standard for political discussions now will benefit your company through the November elections.

Have an HR or workplace-related question for the Evil HR Lady? Email [email protected] with “Evil HR Lady” in the subject heading and it may be featured in an upcoming article!

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