Should we draw a line under politics at work?

Missing puzzle pieces with megaphone icons. Communication, discussion demonstrating politics at work.

Key takeaways

  • With increasing political activism and global conflicts, political discussions at work are becoming more prevalent and impactful.
  • Managers need to recognise and adapt to the political landscape to ensure employees feel supported, safe, and heard.
  • Benefits of political discussions: Open political conversations can prevent underlying tensions, foster learning, and allow employees to be their authentic selves.
  • Risks of political discussions: Political conversations can create stress, perpetuate biases, and harm psychological safety if not managed carefully.

Discussing politics at work can feel like walking on thin ice. However, with public activisim on the rise are we on firmer footing than we realise?

Recent changes in the political landscape, such as the Israel-Gaza conflict, the Ukraine war, and increasing global protests, have made political debate more turbulent than ever. According to a recent SHRM survey, 20% of HR professionals report greater political volatility at work compared to just three years ago.

As a manager, it’s crucial to recognise this and adapt to ensure employees feel supported, safe, and heard. With 61% workers having discussed politics with colleagues at work in the past year, this is a conversation that you need to be a part of.

This blog will update you on the discourse surrounding politics at work, help you form a balanced approach to this challenge, and provide you with tried and tested practical tips to navigate this issue effectively.

The issue at hand

Conflicts abroad, the rising cost of living crisis, inflation, immigration laws and protests dominate the headlines. But should these subjects also dominate workplace conversations?  It’s more than likely that one or more of these issues will be close to the heart of a colleague of yours. Global companies have already felt the impact of this; for example, dozens of employees at Google were sacked after staging a sit-in-style protest in the company’s California offices, demanding an end to Google’s contracts with the Israeli government.

 Considering this, managers need to be more than aware of political discussions — they need to take action to address the volatility and emotional weight these conversations carry. Without intervention, such conversations can spiral out of control or damage employee relationships. Luckily, managers can provide a safe space for respectful conversations, set boundaries, and provide support when needed.

However, just like any political discussion, the question of discussing politics at work is a two-sided debate. Is now the time to bring politics into the workplace? Or should companies double down on potentially fragmenting and controversial conversations?

Our research

As a close-kit remote team, we were curious to learn more about the issue. We conducted an internal survey at The virtual training team (VTT) to understand our team members’ thoughts and feelings about discussing politics at work. We compared our finding with secondary research to see if these opinions were common. We then compiled this information to present balanced cases for and against the discussion of politics at work.

Intrigued? Check out our results below:

The case for discussing politics at work

Don’t let politics at work be the elephant in the room.

 “Big events in the news on social media can blow up — everyone’s talking about it. If workplaces don’t address or open up the conversation there’s a real risk that the topic can be like an elephant in the room.”

Supporting data

Politics discussion runs far deeper than the party you support. Political issues impact work, healthcare access, housing, and safety. For many, political discourse affects their daily lives significantly. 66% of Americans say that the current political climate is a significant source of stress.

Silencing political discussion sends a message of privilege and a blindness to their employees’ lived experiences. Research likens politics a form of chronic stress, making it clear that organisations must consider the emotional, social, and mental wellbeing of their employees.

Discussing politics at work can provide a safe learning environment.

“I value the chance to glimpse into other people’s views. It’s a great opportunity for learning — hearing perspectives that challenge your thinking, reinforce it, or simply finding commonality around a subject.”

“I think the gap between left and right seems to be only growing wider and wider, but I think this is because we view that chasm through the lens of the media, or the extreme personalities on either side who have the loudest voice. Actually, with some normalised discussion around politics (whether in or out of work) we may find the gap isn’t as wide as we think it is after all, or if it is we are at least able to bridge it through open-minded conversation.”

Supporting data

 “Left-wing/right-wing” “Culture wars” “The opposition”.  Political discussions often use polarising language, creating a divide between viewpoints. However, overcoming these differences can bridge political gaps. Normalised political discussions can even prevent misunderstandings and reduce tensions.

Banning the conversation around political differences won’t resolve disagreement, it will only bury the tension, which can resurface as subversive micro-aggressions, which are arguably more damaging.

Discussing politics at work supports your people to be their authentic selves.

“In a healthy working environment people should be encouraged to bring themselves to work. Beliefs, ideologies and core values are all fundamental parts of our character and are all themselves facets of politics. To outright ban these conversations would be akin to telling people they must leave a huge part of themselves at the door before stepping into the office. We know that masking huge parts of our characters/values/beliefs etc. can be hugely damaging to wellbeing and productivity.”

Supporting data

As workplaces become more liberal, employees are less willing to leave their beliefs at home. 64% of US workers feel supported when their company takes a public stance on political issues that they care about. This is especially true with Gen Z, who are redefining the responsibility of the workplace to provide a sense of purpose and embrace their employees’ values. 77% of  Gen Zers surveyed find it important to work for a company that cares about diversity, equity and inclusion, and 92% of surveyed Gen Zers want some alignment in values and purpose from the company they work for.

Organisations that acknowledge and respect employees’ political views are more likely to retain talent and create a supportive work environment. Failing to do so can lead to significant employee turnover, as seen with Basecamp’s political discussion ban, that resulted in a third of their workers leaving the company.

The case against political discussion

Political discussions inadvertently kill curiosity.

“Political discussion can create a fear of being wrong or causing a reaction, as perpetuate worry that I am not as well informed as I should.”

Supporting data

45% of people regret having political discussions at work, and 51% believe they damage the work environment. The fear of political discussions going wrong is a very real issue. A potentially well-intentioned discussion can easily turn sour, and with cancel culture on the rise, being wrong has greater negative consequences than ever before. In fact, the fear of being wrong can be one of the greatest causes of self-censorship. In fact, 62% of Americans say the political climate today prevents them from speaking out on issues they believe in.

While the workplace should be a space to learn and be curious, a discussion that silences those who are less informed only perpetuates a culture of suppression. It ultimately leads to the fear of failure, rather than a persistent curiosity and hunger to understand.

Political discussion can harm workplace wellbeing.

 “Political discussion can make me feel exhausted and stressed.”

Supporting data

 65% say they feel exhausted and 55% feel angry when thinking about politics. We’ve already seen how politics can form huge parts of the patchwork of people’s lives. The workplace may be a welcome sanctuary from the daily barrage of government policies and issues — a space where they can pour their attention into their work tasks, or find refuge in the friendships of their colleagues.

Political discussions therefore risk shattering workplace harmony and triggering emotional stress. Predicting the emotional impact these discussions can have on employees is challenging, which could lead to a volatile and unsafe work environment.

Political discussion can feed into our biases.

“I feel that political discussion comes hand in hand with a certain social stigma.”

Supporting data

The taboo of political discussion is very real: 50% of US workers would only discuss their political views at work anonymously.

Although we’d like to believe that we are unbiased individuals, and the workplace reflects that, that could be far from the truth. Our biases can unintentionally seep into the judgements we make, and influence hiring and promotion decisions, leading to discrimination. 24% of U.S. workers experienced bias based on their political affiliation — and this number is rising. Researchers also found that workers who share a political affiliation with an employer are 48% to 72% more likely to be hired than those who don’t. The same is true for senior-level employees, where the stakes are just as high. Voicing their political views can inadvertently make up a large part of their organisation’s brand. With 31% of employees considering leaving a job if a company’s CEO supported a political candidate who they did not agree with, this can have very real applications when it comes to attracting talent.

Political discussion can damage psychological safety.

“Political discussion can create a volatile work environment.”

Supporting data

You might think that you can open the can of worms that is political debate, let them run free, and carefully package them back up again, close that box, and put it away in the cupboard. However, it isn’t quite that simple. Political debate can leave lasting divides and permanently your workplace’s psychological safety. Research has shown that 38% of employees feel that sharing their opinions with their manager could harm their jobs and relationships. These feelings can silence employees in other discussions, impacting overall workplace inclusivity.

How can managers approach politics at work?

“Every good conversation should be built around the principle of respect.”

Numerous companies have tackled political discussions in the workplace with unique solutions.

Take a look at these six approaches below:

  1. Shift the focus: Software firm Intuit has told employees: “We want you to focus on how you’re feeling and how things are affecting you as a person, and less on using our internal channels as a platform for your political views.”
  2. Make your political views your brand: Lush, the cosmetics and beauty brand, has a clear stance on issues such as sustainability, plus animal and human rights. Lush attracts workers who align with its values, fostering cohesion in the workplace, and even encouraging political activism as part of its brand.
  3. Normalise political discourse: Google’s ‘Talks at Google’ speaker series is engrained in the Google culture. Talks are run each week in offices around the world about topical subjects and political issues, which are loaded onto YouTube for all employees to access. This initiative breaks the taboo of political conversation, and prevents the worry that comes with misinformation.
  4. Provide a controlled space for political discussion: Salesforce hosts ‘Ohana groups’ which bring together diverse employees and their allies to discuss political and social issues, with guard rails in place for mediated and facilitated discussion .‘Ohana’ means family in Hawaiian, and this sense of support is exactly what Salesforce aims to achieve in their groups. The groups allow a safe and controlled space for colleagues to discuss issues that affect them, rather than silencing and allowing the issues to go underground.
  5. Empower employees to drive change: Levi’s ‘Time to vote’ initiative, and Patagonia’s ‘Activism internships’ allow employees to take time off from their regular duties to engage in environmental and social justice campaigns.
  6. Transparency: Buffer, the social media management company, prides itself on its transparency. As well as publishing their salaries, finances, and monthly metrics, they also have an open dialogue about challenges and conflicts at the senior level. In this way, senior leaders normalise disagreements, and model behaviours that allow for healthy and respectful disagreement.

Final thoughts

Discussing politics in the workplace doesn’t have to be daunting. As political issues increasingly permeate our work and home lives, managers must be aware of their impact on team members. Finding the balance between freedom of speech and a conducive work environment can be challenging. Whether you choose to prohibit or encourage political discussion, approach the issue with humility, consideration, and empathy. Your teams will thank you for it.

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