Keeping the political divide from dividing employees


What can HR do to help corporations promote a culture of mutual respect and inclusion? It all starts with an organization’s core values and focus on diversity and inclusion.
As a saying from the late-1960s women’s movement goes, “The personal is political.” What comes around goes around, and it’s fair to say that we’re once again living in a time in which the lines between personal beliefs and values and politics have blurred. The current environment and political debate in many parts of the world have politicized individual preferences. People are highly polarized, and these differences have a way of creeping into the workplace. No matter how much leaders may try to stop these conversations in the workplace, they happen. Corporate leaders in general and human resources professionals in particular need to understand how to manage potentially tense discussions and situations between employees while also supporting those who might struggle to process the ramifications of political events.

There’s a lot at stake around this aspect of governance and management. Corporate reputations are on the line; recent experiences at companies such as Google and Goodyear offer some cautionary tales around the ease with which seemingly straightforward policies on political expression can be misapplied or misconstrued.

So, what can HR do to help corporations promote a culture of mutual respect and inclusion? Based on our experience and research, it all starts with an organization’s core values and focus on diversity and inclusion. Quite simply, high-functioning organizations are showing respect for diverse views, which makes employees feel comfortable bringing their true selves into the workplace. To bring this into practice, we suggest organizations put the following five ideas into place—not just for the short term but as part of a broader focus on building an inclusive workplace:

Provide space and services to help employees process their feelings.
Emphasize employee commonality through inclusive corporate values.
Provide leaders with training on how to steer inappropriate conversations.
Coach and educate employees on inclusion.
Develop nondiscriminatory policies on inclusive, respectful conversations.
One way to prevent issues from bubbling up in the first place is to provide space and professional services that can help employees process their feelings around divisive political events and election outcomes. Those who work through their thoughts and experiences around these issues and events can better contribute toward the goal of maintaining a high-functioning organization. Increasing accessibility to HR resources via open-door policies or office hours is a productive first step that can help employees regain their focus or, where more help is needed, obtain referrals to more robust mental health service offerings.

Perhaps the best way businesses can overcome employee temptation to give in to political argumentation amid so much turmoil is to emphasize the many things that all employees have in common. Amplify the corporate vision and values that brought and keep them together. Effective communication of the vision and values requires a range of channels, from events such as regional all-hands calls and virtual town halls to a cascade of messages from executives and team leads down throughout the organization. This messaging should be supplemented by reminders of the corporate vision and values on places like employee desktops, signage, value cards, and the like. Individual stories presented through internal media such as newsletters and videos that highlight how the company’s vision and values are brought into reality in the course of people’s work are also highly valuable.

Leaders need specialized training on how to behave when potentially tense situations are occurring. They need to master the fine art of allowing for open discussion characterized by respectful exchanges while also ensuring inclusivity for all parties. They also have to reinforce the need to set boundaries, establish proper conversational flow, and promote de-escalation.

Employees need coaching and education on what kinds of words and deeds might be perceived by others as non-inclusive, as well as awareness-building on the processes and procedures in place to ensure that people are held accountable for their action. Mandatory online trainings are needed, supplemented by narratives that show examples of both the ramifications of non-inclusive behavior and the benefits of inclusion (for example, the successes achieved by diverse teams). In these educational efforts, special attention should be paid to electronic communications, both because the distance provided by screens can embolden people to put forth words they might otherwise be hesitant to say aloud and because the lack of nonverbal cues and gestures can make misunderstandings easier.

Finally, carefully crafted nondiscriminatory policies need to be developed that explicitly lay out guidelines for engaging in inclusive and respectful conversations. People need to be reminded that it is crucial to keep their feelings and tempers in check during conversations and maintain a friendly, focused work environment. A clear process regarding disciplinary action for instances in which diversity and inclusiveness are not respected or hate speech is used should also be developed and communicated.

Inclusivity and respect for diversity of thought are increasingly codified in corporate vision and values statements. Those companies that have already expressed this commitment have a leg up on overcoming the challenges posed by today’s political divide, as this is a foundational step in building an intrinsically inclusive culture in which people feel a sense of belonging that helps them work well with people of all political affiliations. Laggards are strongly encouraged to consider movement in this direction to develop the sort of workplace that attracts and retains the best up-and-coming talent and maintains them through a strong, welcoming culture.

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