Defusing Political Conflict in the Workplace

Adam Jacobson


February 1, 2021

In the workplace, political discussions and disagreements can sometimes lead to serious incidents, including physical violence. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has forced employees to work from home, limiting the chances of altercations in the office, even less intense incidents among staff can impact employee morale, teamwork and productivity. And with the escalating tensions around the pandemic, the U.S. presidential election and subsequent events like the January 6 riot and invasion of the U.S. Capitol, these incidents may pose a bigger risk to office cohesion and productivity.

The Pew Research Center reported in November that supporters of Joe Biden and Donald Trump differed significantly on which issues they thought were important. For example, 82% of Biden supporters ranked the COVID-19 pandemic as “very important” to their presidential election vote, compared with just 24% of Trump supporters. This also extends to issues like health care (82% and 44%, respectively) and climate change (68% and 11%). Perhaps most illustrative of this divide: when asked about the other candidate’s backers, 80% of Biden supporters and 77% of Trump supporters said that they not only had “different priorities when it comes to politics, but we fundamentally disagree about core American values.”

In October, Gartner’s U.S. Employee Election Sentiment survey showed that 60% of employees felt that the election was impacting their ability to get work done, a significant increase from 47% in February 2020 and 39% in December 2019. Additionally, four out of 10 U.S. employees said they have avoided coworkers due to their political views and 28% of respondents reported arguing with their colleagues about politics (up from 15% in December 2019).

These issues can have professional consequences for employees. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, “About one in 10 working Americans has personally experienced or witnessed differential treatment on the basis of political affiliation, or political affiliation bias (whether positive or negative bias).”

Employers can take steps to mitigate the risks of workplace political disagreements. According to Jaime Wisegarver, a partner with Hirschler Law, “The key to preventing those situations from escalating is to ensure that the conversation remains civil.  There’s no harm in disagreeing, but employers should make it clear that disruptive conversations about any topic will not be tolerated.” She recommended that companies start by “encouraging supervisors and managers to model respect, to appreciate differing viewpoints, and to not tolerate hurtful or inappropriate comments that violate workplace policies.”

Employers have both a responsibility and an incentive to cultivate a safe, comfortable working environment for all employees. Companies should make clear that they will not tolerate harassment, bullying or physical violence, and that these behaviors will result in serious consequences, including termination. These guidelines can be backed up by regular training. As the Society for Human Resource Management stated, “Preventive, ongoing training can lay the groundwork for employees to understand their behavioral expectations and for managers to be prepared to act when employees fall short of those expectations.”

Encouraging employees to promptly report potentially dangerous situations to management can also help prevent routine political disagreements from becoming disrespectful or even violent. Management or human resources can intervene and remind the participating employees about expectations for workplace conduct and the professional consequences for disruptive behavior. Offering employees mental health resources to address their anxiety or anger can also help prevent incidents before they occur by providing workers healthy ways to deal with these emotions outside of the office.

In a effort to improve workplace cohesion, some employers go beyond setting and reinforcing workplace conduct standards by training their workers to discuss controversial topics in constructive and meaningful ways. For example, since 2016, General Mills has held a “Courageous Conversations” series, where employees come together to discuss political issues like the “Me Too” movement, Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem, mental health and immigration. These conversations take place in a moderated environment with trained facilitators, where employees can express different opinions in respectful ways.

According to General Mills, “Attendees have reported that they’ve come away with increased commitment to engaging different perspectives, increased levels of understanding and empathy across different communities and increased understanding of company resources.”

To avoid conflict, companies may also decide to limit how employees express their political opinions, but should be aware of the legal limitations of taking such actions. “While employees cannot reasonably be kept from discussing politics in the workplace, employers should consider lawful policies that ban political campaign signs, buttons and campaigning in the workplace,” said Richard Reice, chair of the employment practice group at Michelman & Robinson, LLP. 

These policies may have exceptions, including for labor-related materials. “Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) grants employees the right to act together to improve wages and working conditions,” he said. “Thus, union-related material that expresses a political view or buttons that endorse a political position—for instance, raising the minimum wage—may be protected by the NLRA.”

Even if companies do their best to make the workplace safe and comfortable for their employees and provide guidelines and tools for respectful political conversations or set limits on how employees can express political opinions, they may still face lawsuits. There is the risk that, in response to employer efforts (or lack thereof), some employees may feel discriminated against because of their political opinions or think that their employer is suppressing their right to legal political expression. Management needs to ensure that decisions made regarding employment do not appear to have been influenced by employees’ political beliefs or expression, which might incur legal action.

Insurance coverage may help companies defray some of this risk. Attorneys Peter Halprin and Shaun Crosner of Pasich LLP said, “If claims arise because of workplace employee issues and challenges from political disagreements/polarization in the context of the election, employers may look to their liability insurers (including employment practices liability, directors and officers, and general liability) to defend against such claims.” They added that employment practices coverage “generally extends to allegations of wrongful acts including adverse employment decisions, discrimination, harassment and retaliation,” and may also cover allegations of a hostile work environment.

President Biden has promised “to be a president who seeks not to divide, but to unify,” and “who will work with all my heart to win the confidence of the whole people.” Companies should similarly seek to cultivate workplaces where opinions may differ, but colleagues can work amicably and productively with those with whom they disagree.

Adam Jacobson is associate editor of Risk Management.