The Political Season and the Workplace

There's no reason political discussions at work can't be civil and respectful.
There’s no reason political discussions at work can’t be civil and respectful.

Next week, the Republicans will hold their nominating convention in Cleveland — today, the party released a list of speakers at the event, who will include former Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow and Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. It’s an unconventional list of speakers for a political convention, but that’s fitting because it’s been a thoroughly unconventional political season and will no doubt only get stranger still as Election Day approaches.

The anger and controversy the season has generated is resonating at many workplaces, of course, and today CareerBuilder released a survey of thousands of workers and managers that finds three in 10 employers and nearly one out of five employees have argued with a co-worker over a particular candidate this election season. Donald Trump has been the subject of most workplace arguments (13 percent), followed by Hillary Clinton at 8 percent.

Thirty percent of managers and 17 percent of employees have argued with a co-worker over a political candidate, the survey finds, and younger workers (ages 18 to 24) are the most likely to engage in heated political debate at work, at 24 percent.

In his campaign, Trump has stressed that political correctness is “killing our country,” and many employees share his concern: 50 percent of employees and 59 percent of managers say the American workplace has become “too politically correct,” with more workers saying it has hindered their business (34 percent) vs. the 22 percent who say it makes their business stronger. One third of employees (33 percent) say they’re afraid to voice certain opinions because they feel they may not be considered politically correct.

Of course, “political correctness” is a notoriously fuzzy term, and what some may consider overly PC behavior others would describe simply as common courtesy. In fact, PC behavior can actually boost productivity on male/female work teams, a 2014 study by Cornell ILR finds.

A few companies have fired employees for their political activity, prompting a conservative organization to call on large U.S. companies to publicly commit to respecting their employees’ rights to express their political opinions. That said, HR obviously needs to remind IT employees (who are the most likely to engage in political debates, at 47 percent, according to the CareerBuilder survey), manufacturing workers (37 percent), professional/business services employees (30 percent) and everyone else that –questions of free speech aside — if you can’t discuss a topic calmly and respectfully, it’s probably best to just leave it alone.