These are some of the difficult and timely questions I have been hearing from learning and development departments in this politically charged and controversy-rich time:
- Can someone wear a political button in the workplace?
- What about wearing a Black Lives Matter pin?
- When we have a virtual conversation with a group of staff members, what should we do when the upcoming election or debates are raised?
- Bumper stickers in the parking lot: Does the organization have any guidelines?
- If an employee has a different view of reproductive rights than their manager, how does that impact each of them?
- Is it OK for an employee to advocate voting?
- Should we schedule any major activities or meetings for the day after the election?
- When an employee loses a relative to COVID-19, can they express their feelings about health coverage or government policy?
- How do we handle divergent views about closing/opening schools and the impact those decisions are having on employees with children?
Yes, we are living in one of the most politically charged times in decades. We are in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic. Social media is loaded with intense and provocative postings about politics and public policy. Your employees are watching (or choosing to not watch) hour-by-hour news that reflects the controversies in their nation, in their neighborhoods, and even in their families.
I chatted with a range of chief learning officers who represent the full spectrum of political perspectives. We explored these real and tricky questions with HR and talent leaders, and comments shared by workers about politics in the workplace have been deeply informative. Here are the factors that business and workplace cultures are balancing:
Freedom and comfort. Employees want to view the workplace as having high levels of both freedom of expression and comfort with colleagues.
Corporate values. The best example is how companies are recognizing and reacting to racial injustice. I have been moved by CEOs and others focusing on the Black Lives Matter movement and the need to deal with institutional racism; yet some employees see these efforts as being politically loaded.
Empathy with stress, disruption and uncertainty. Organizations need to be empathetic with the realities of how employees and their families are being impacted by the stress, disruptions and economic and public health uncertainties of our times.
Storytelling is powerful for distributed teams. Employees want to share stories with each other about these times to find common ground, but stories easily jump to political and controversial ground. Even when we work to keep the conversation away from politics, the deeply personal stresses we hear from our teammates (e.g., a grandparent in a nursing home who they have not been able to touch in seven months, a relative in the hospital with COVID-19, a neighbor who has lost their job or business) may trigger a statement about who is to blame or public policy flaws.
So, what should organizations do to handle these “right now” issues and challenges?
The first recommendation is to create safe places! There are two types of safe places that our employees (and customers) deserve: First, separate organizational interactions from political interactions. Set the ground rules for meetings, conferences and even staff gatherings. Remind folks that this is not the place to walk down political pathways. Second, create spaces where people can choose to interact on politics or controversies. One organization has created a “virtual Hyde Park:” A physical location designed for employees who want to engage in political conversation.
Be explicit and consistent about pins, buttons and posters. Tell employees the ground rules for wearing or displaying political views. Is it OK to wear a “VOTE” button, but not a “Vote for This Candidate” pin? Is it OK to wear a “Racism Sucks” pin or a “Ban Abortion” button? Honor that people have strong views and the full right to display those opinions, but the rules are about the culture of the workplace.
Be clear about internal vs. external guidelines. Some organizations differentiate guidelines around these issues based on whether employees are customer-facing or internal-only.
Communicate that values matter. An organization cannot be considered socially responsible without touching on values. It is key to share those values with employees and interviewees. The challenge is how those values intersect with political candidates or controversy.
Make sure “diversity” includes diversity of opinions and voting. We must establish a safe way for employees to handle their discomfort with diverse views held by colleagues, managers or even customers. Look at how other diversity issues are dealt with to inform how this should be managed.
Own the strange times! Don’t assume that we fully understand how to handle the current environment. This is a time of change and innovation. Own the strangeness and learn together.
Pay attention to Election Day(s). Personally, I wish Election Day were a holiday for employees to get to the voting booths or to volunteer as poll watchers or campaigners. Assume that this year’s election may not be decided by 10 p.m. on Nov. 3, and consider moving learning events to a day or two later.
On a final note, leadership is often gauged by how we handle the dynamic differences in opinions among our colleagues, competitors and organizations. Let’s be learners in how we honor democracy with empathy, respect and collaboration.