A Lesson on Politics in the Office

ThinkstockPhotos-153920586Some of the biggest events at this week’s SHRM 2016 Annual Convention and Exposition had little to do with HR. One was a concert Tuesday night by the band Train. The other was a highly entertaining discussion about politics between pundits Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson.

I don’t know about Train — I didn’t go, but it’s hard to imagine that the performance had much instructive value. On reflection, though, I think Begala and Carlson had a lesson for HR practitioners.

They didn’t make their point explicitly, but rather by modeling a healthy way for colleagues to disagree. The takeaway: Political discussions — including those playing out every day in company lunchrooms — don’t have to be divisive.

It’s a natural concern, particularly this year. An unusually heated and dramatic presidential race has passions running high, and employers naturally don’t want workers distracted by conflict in the workplace.

A SHRM study released as the conference began Sunday in Washington, D.C., found 26 percent of HR professionals responding said employees are more vocal about their political opinions this year. The survey found 72 percent of employers discourage political activity in the workplace, but only 24 percent have a written policy.

Companies can ban bullying or active campaigning in the office. But a SHRM news release quotes Edward Yost, an employee-relations expert with the organization, saying they generally “cannot have policies that prohibit all political discussions,” without running into issues with the National Labor Relations Board.

Here’s where your company culture gets tested. If workers are going to disagree on political issues, you want them to do it the way Begala and Carlson do — with empathy, humor and respect for other views.

Begala is a former adviser to President Bill Clinton and longtime Democratic political consultant. Carlson is a commentator on Fox News and founder of the conservative news site The Daily Caller. The two co-hosted CNN’s political talk show “Crossfire” more than a decade ago and often appear together on stage as they did Tuesday morning at the SHRM conference.

In some ways their presentation was a comedy show, with the men gently poking fun at each other — and themselves. But they had serious and substantive disagreements.

Carlson’s main point was that the nation’s elites on both sides of the aisle have missed the rise of middle-class economic anxiety that fueled the rise of presumptive GOP nominee Donald J. Trump. And he freely included people like himself in that blame.

“Where I live, there is literally no downside to mass immigration,” because high-income jobs are not threatened, he said. “Immigration is a no-cost way to feel good in my neighborhood.”

Begala agreed that both parties have “failed a whole lot of people in Youngstown,” using that city as a proxy for white middle-class families whose livelihoods are threatened by a changing economy. But the answer is not to demonize immigrants, as he contends Trump is doing. Instead, “we have got to find a way to lift up the poor and middle class.”

Both men acknowledged each other’s perspective and recognized that neither Democrats nor Republicans had all the answers — basic elements of any healthy political discussion.

The nation’s polarized political environment has led many to feel “a contempt for people who disagree with them,” Carlson said. “There should be a space for sincere, honorable disagreement.”