Politics (Not) Aside: Arguments Rise in the Workplace

As the 2020 election nears, 42% of workers say they’ve been involved in a political disagreement in the office.

Published: Dec 3, 2019

Two colleagues working on a project together are in a heated discussion. Their voices are growing louder and their gestures more animated. But they aren’t arguing over a missed deadline or new budget proposal. They aren’t even talking about the project at all. What they are fighting over is much more personal—politics. 

If it seems like talking about politics has gone from workplace taboo to workplace norm, it’s because it has. According to a recent study from the Society of Human Resource Managers, over half of working Americans polled say talking about politics and political issues at work has become much more common over the last four years. Moreover, 42% of workers polled say they have personally been involved in a political disagreement at work and 44% say they have witnessed colleagues arguing about politics in the office. 

One-third of workers say their workplace is not inclusive of different political perspectives.

Of course, the problem isn’t talking politics, per se. Instead, it’s that conversations have become more divided, more hostile, and more emotional than in the past—and potentially more discriminatory, says Ronald Porter, senior client partner with Korn Ferry’s Global Human Resources Center of Expertise. “Many people today take an all or nothing approach to their political views,” he says, “and given the volatility of the issues, organizations have to set clear boundaries around appropriate behavior.” But where those boundaries lie depend on the organization, which could have policies stricter than what the law requires to open discussions that mirror diversity and inclusion town halls. 

Indeed, according to the study, one-third of workers say their workplace is not inclusive of different political perspectives and 10% say they have been treated differently because of their political views. Those results parallel a 2017 Korn Ferry study where 56% of executives said disclosing their political affiliation in the workplace could negatively impact their career and 23% said the current political environment interferes with their job performance.

With the 2020 U.S. presidential election race kicking into high gear, political talk around the office will likely ramp up in proportion. On top of that, consumers, employees, and investors are increasingly pressuring companies to take a stand on climate change, diversity and inclusion, social impact, and other issues that go together with political discourse. 

As an employee, it’s important to understand that the stance a CEO takes on a political issue can affect your organization’s brand externally and its operating environment internally, says George Atkinson, senior client partner with Korn Ferry’s Global Human Resources Center of Expertise. That’s why many CEOs are trying to work closely with human resources leaders and have transparent discussions about how their political positions may impact the company. After all, at a time when people are increasingly looking to work for organizations that align with their values, any public political position can attract or deter talent in equal measure. “Human resources are being held more and more responsible for an organization’s culture,” Atkinson says. “They need to partner with leadership on anything sensitive.”    

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