Should You Talk Politics at Work?

Editor’s note: This post was contributed by Peter Zandan. Peter is global vice chair at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, where he leads the company’s worldwide research operations. Zandan has more than 30 years of data and social science experience working with top brands such as Apple, IBM and Dell. Zandan was selected by Interactive Week as one of the “Unsung Heroes of the Internet” and awarded Ernst & Young’s “Entrepreneur of the Year” for Austin.


I first began contemplating the merits and pitfalls of talking politics in the office when I noticed one of my colleagues using some choice language about an elected official on social media. I looked to the company I work for, which has over 200,000 employees operating in 112 countries, and found — to my surprise — that it does not have a formal policy regarding political discussions at work and on social media. We’re not alone: In a recent survey, two-thirds of HR professionals reported that their employers did not have a policy regarding political activities in the workplace.

In 2017, news alerts wake us up in the morning and put us to sleep at night, and it’s naïve to think the workplace is exempt from political discourse. Politics are unavoidable, and legally, companies cannot stop employees from having political discussions.

So, what should you do to ensure those discussions are appropriate to a work environment? At the Culturati Summit 2017, I moderated a panel that focused on how companies should manage politics in the workplace.

Navigating the challenges

First, it’s important to understand the challenges that come with political conversations in the workplace. Besides fearing a complete company meltdown or backlash from the current administration, worries about the feelings and safety of employees are keeping the HR department up at night.

“The biggest fear of heads of HR is that political conversations will get away from [them],” said Kelli Newman, Head of People Operations at FabFitFun. “Someone’s feelings are going to get hurt and someone’s going to feel unfairly treated.”

Concerns about a hostile work environment are legitimate. Leading up to the election, the American Psychological Association found that one in four U.S. employees had been “negatively affected by political talk at work” and were experiencing greater stress and lower productivity. Poor working environments can result either from bad coworker relations or messaging from top leadership (Exhibit A: GrubHub).

“We want to create an agnostic environment so people can feel safe to bring their whole self to work,” said Carla Piñeyro Sublett, Chief Marketing Officer of Rackspace. “If you start to weigh in as a company on a political stance that is binary, then you’re alienating a percentage of your population and potentially a percentage of your client base.”

Not only do heated political discussions raise the risk of losing business and clients when they become public, companies also risk losing employees themselves. If employees feel uncomfortable in their workspace, they may either go silent or leave. Such losses, panelists noted, are a blow to diversity of thought in the workplace and can leave the company in “the bubble,” mistakenly believing that everyone agrees with the political opinions held by most people in the firm.

At the panel, Gerardo Interiano, Head of External Affairs at Google, brought up Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s defense of Peter Thiel’s connection to Trump, citing the moment as a positive example of creating a safe space for all ideas and protecting diversity of thought. Companies must walk a fine line to maintain a safe space for all political views, without allowing room for hate or intolerance.

Finding the line: The value of systematic engagement

For me, the conclusion is simple: you cannot ignore politics. Political issues are going to grow rather than shrink in the public consciousness, and companies cannot and should not hide from these conversations. My suggestion is to engage in a systematic way and with intentionality. The key is to develop a clear policy, structure opportunities for dialogue, and generally allow your employees to have a point of view.

At a time when policy matters such as immigration, civil rights, and healthcare hit close to home for many of our coworkers, I recommend addressing these issues head-on. Building a company culture and community based on empathy will lead to better teamwork and communication — and perhaps a more well-rounded, engaged workforce.

“This was a highly emotional, deeply personal race,” Sublett said. “Because of that, emotions have been heightened in the workplace. But if you have an environment that fosters healthy debate, that lets people go at it and then walk out holding hands at the end of it, then I think that you’re in a much better place.”

Of course, clear boundaries are also essential to keeping emotions and professionalism in check. Rather than wait for an incident, companies should preempt conflict by establishing clear expectations around respect in the workplace.

“From the HR perspective, I think that it’s important [to have] empathy, but you also have to [fall back on] all of the policies that are already in place around zero tolerance for discrimination, harassment, and retaliation,’” said Lori Knowlton, Chief People Officer at Silicon Labs.

At a time when communication is near instant, it’s easy for issues that begin on social media to escalate into the workplace. For many young workers, the temptation to post on social media is stronger than the self-preserving instinct to consider the professional repercussions of such posts. Setting firm limits on social expression and reducing grey areas can have a lasting positive impact.

“The line between personal and professional is blurred with social media, said John Gilluly, a partner at DLA Piper. “Political speech is protected speech, but there’s a difference between political discourse and speech that creates a hostile work environment.”

“We have to be able to have a conversation about politics, about political matters, detached from your own personal emotion. Because, we’ve got to be able to understand and articulate what the influence of a particular administration or transition in power has on the environment in which we operate or in which our clients operate.”

“Learning how to navigate in those gray areas is the hardest part of managing a workforce,” he continued.

Professional and political results

Encouraging conversation, diversity of thought, and engagement in the workplace will have a ripple effect. I would argue that the workforce is a sleeping giant when it comes to politics. Creating a culture that questions bad ideas and is informed on the issues could have a significant effect on both the next election and your next work project.

“I would rather have someone be who they really are at work, with all the bad and the good, than someone who’s overly cautious,” said Brett Hurt, cofounder and CEO of data.world. “That cautiousness is not going to just happen in politics, it’s going to happen in everything. It’s going to happen in culture, it’s going to happen in not standing up and saying, ‘We’re suffering in silence because that guy you hired is a total asshole.’ And I just think that’s wrong.”

Whether or not your company decides to throw away the caution tape, it’s time to think carefully about how you approach politics at work. More likely than not, politicians conversations are already happening in the office — for most companies, the goal is to provide the structure and environment for employees to engage safely with one another.

“The workplace is the last place in America that’s diverse. If we don’t talk politics and resolve some of this in an open environment in the workplace, there’s no other place it’s going to happen.” — Matthew Dowd, chief political analyst, ABC News