Workers are divided on politics at the office, Here's how to handle it. As seen in The Business Journals

Location: Miami

When it comes to politics in the office, worker opinions are — as you might expect — pretty divided.

A new survey by human resources software firm HiBob found 61% of respondents believe socio-political discussions should stay out of the office. But, in a hard-to-reconcile twist, 48% of workers said they felt respectful socio-political discourse should be encouraged to help nurture an inclusive and diverse company culture.

Against that backdrop, as well as the increasing polarization of political discourse in America and the looming 2024 election, experts say employers should tread carefully when it comes to political talk in the office because there can be consequences.

Peter Cappelli, the George W. Taylor Professor of Management at the Wharton School and author of "The Future of the Office: Work from Home, Remote Work, and the Hard Choices We All Face" said that in most cases, it is best to leave political talk out of the office. Being able to handle those discussions requires a level of management that most companies won’t invest in, he said.

While there could be benefits from encouraging and fostering an open dialogue, it could also damage working relationships.

He said managers and business owners should intervene if political discussions are getting in the way of work, either as a conflict between workers or damaging the overall environment.

“If you already have a sense that political differences are getting in the way of work, then you should do something about it. You should bring in somebody and make it a low-stress, over lunch discussion of political differences,” Capelli said.

If the conflict is between two workers, it would be best to get them together and talk out their problems, he noted. Even risk-averse managers should be able to get two people talking in order to solve that kind of workplace issue before it grows.

He also dismissed concerns about potential legal minefields from trying to solve a political conflict at work, saying managers and bosses should be focused on encouraging a productive work environment.

And often, all it takes is for two people to talk it out.

“People do pull their punches back a whole lot more when it’s not in a big group or you are not anonymous,” Cappelli said. "If you have to sit across the table and look at someone you are far more likely to be nice to them than online.”

Most workers believe political discussions should be kept out of the workplace — but an employer’s political reputation would stop many from applying for a job.

The survey of 2,000 American workers aged 25 and older conducted on behalf of human resources software firm HiBob found that 61% of workers said socio-political discussions should stay out of the office, and 66% said those discussions should be kept off company communication platforms such as Slack. But, in a hard-to-reconcile twist, 48% of workers said they felt respectful socio-political discourse should be encouraged to help nurture an inclusive and diverse company culture, and even more so, 81% said social and political topics need to be discussed in a “safe space” and with the ability to voice opposing opinions respectfully.

That makes navigating these issues treacherous for business owners and managers.

Ronni Zehavi, co-founder and CEO of HiBob, said smartphones and social media have blurred the boundaries between professional and personal lives. That, combined with the charged political environment, allows a person's political opinions to impact their career.

Similarly, companies are increasingly asked to take a stance on hot-button topics in a way that can affect their business for better or for worse.

The survey found 39% of respondents would not accept a job offer from a company opposed to their political views, and 29% said such a difference would prompt them to leave a company. This was particularly true for men, younger workers and parents.

Additionally, 42% of respondents believe sharing a political opinion their manager disagrees with could harm their position in the company, with men (46%) being more likely than women (39%) to feel that way.

Just like with salaries — another touchy topic — younger workers were more likely to be open to conversations about socio-political issues should be encouraged.

“In our politically charged world, everything is seen through a political lens," Zehavi said. "Despite a strong sentiment that socio-politics should be left out of the office and channels for company communications during charged times such as national elections, global conflict, economic downturns, climate events, or a pandemic, socio-political discussions in the workplace can’t be avoided altogether."

Zehavi said companies need to set clear guidelines for respectful discourse and create safe spaces for those conversations.

Adam Weber, senior vice president of community at performance management software firm 15Five, said managers and owners need to build a foundation of psychological safety at the workplace where employees feel safe to be themselves, including acknowledging that we often work with people who have different beliefs than us.

“If we approach these conversations in a safe environment with mutual respect, it creates an opportunity not only for individuals to grow, but for organizations to be more robust because it hosts a broader range of thought,” Weber said. “The hope is that by facilitating greater respect and even appreciation for others’ beliefs in the microcosm of work, that will return us to a place of civility in our greater community conversations as well.”

But while discussions of political issues might be treacherous, business owners face a much more complicated future when it comes to religious accommodations in the workplace. The Supreme Court recently issued a unanimous opinion in favor of an
evangelical Christian worker at the Postal Service who refused to work on Sunday because of his religious beliefs and said he was disciplined because of it.

The court ruled federal law requires employers to show the burden of an accommodation must result in "substantial" increases costs or expenditures in order not to grant one. But the lack of specifics in the ruling and the likelihood that additional court cases will be needed to figure out the new standards creates a complicated minefield for businesses, legal experts say.

It also means employers will need to consider religious requests in areas such as scheduling, dress codes, workplace breaks and even paid days off.

"Employers are going to have to readjust their thinking to be more sensitive or have the red flags go off sooner,' said David Miller, an employment attorney at Bryant Miller Olive. "If somebody asks for a religious accommodation, then they need to pick up their phone and call their lawyer and let their lawyer figure it out - don't do it on your own you are bound to get it wrong."