The past year has been a media frenzy — controversial elections, civil rights protests, climate change reckonings, and a global pandemic have all served as catalysts for deeply impassioned conversations. As such, these conversations have traversed from the television screen to the workplace, placing a bright spotlight on the way businesses are addressing the pressing issues at hand. How they respond — or fail to respond — can make or break a company’s reputation.
Although employees have always brought their opinions and experiences to work, the issue lies in companies failing to adequately adapt their policies to respond to new social justice and political developments — resulting in productivity issues and impacting worker’s morale negatively.
According to The Employer Report, 36% of workers avoid talking to or working with a co-worker because of their political views. In this article, we reveal practical guidance for employers as they navigate through these sensitive and pressing issues.
What Happens When Businesses Suppress Social and Political Expression?
In 2019, Google made the executive motion to ban political discourse within their internal mailing lists due to increased tension happening within their workplace. Traditionally, Google fostered a culture of free speech, but today’s intense political climate forced Google to head in a new direction. This raised discrimination claims from Google’s employees that ultimately lead to employees’ terminations.
Basecamp, a web-based project management tool, made a recent policy change barring internal political discussions. This move resulted in one-third of their workforce resigning from the company. Thirty-three percent of their workforce jumped ship for a political policy.
Basecamp isn’t the only company facing similar conflicts. In February 2020, Gartner, a leading research and advisory firm, studied how the U.S. Presidential election affected employees. In their work, they found that 91% of employees said they either personally talk about politics or overhear others at work. They even found that colleagues with differing political views tended to avoid one another.
Suppression of social and political expression has clear downsides that could lead to grave consequences. It’s unsuitable to think that silencing or refusing to address both internal and external social justice issues can be the optimal solution to mitigate these difficult conversations in the workplace.
Why Encourage Social Justice and Political Discussions in the Workplace?
Even though political differences can lead to tension in the workplace, Nature Human Behaviour reports that teams whose political ideologies are weighted to one side often have more conflict than a team with a balanced set of ideologies.
Practicing safe social and political dialogue channels more diverse perspectives. This enables teams to bring more ideas to the table and keep employees engaged in the workplace, even if there is an uncomfortable situation where a manager could get involved.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated, “We should enable as much expression as possible unless it will cause an imminent risk of specific harms or dangers spelled out in clear policies.” This was mentioned after Zuckerburg decided not to take down a post by former President Trump about the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis— which triggered all kinds of opinions from people throughout all social media channels.
While Facebook workers had their differences about Zuckerberg’s actions, it led to a consensus that expression policies should be revised in one way or another. This sets the importance for employers to have flexibility with their policies as new social justice and political matters develop.
Setting the Right Environment
When a welcoming environment and culture are in place, growth and productivity thrive. Instead of discouraging or banning all forms of political discourse in the workplace, businesses should consider which forms will have the greatest positive impact within their workforce. Engaging in meaningful conversations about politics and social issues guides workers to think critically, consider different perspectives, and positively engage in conversations that would otherwise feel intense and heightened.
With an open-minded workplace environment, employees will be more willing to listen to their co-workers’ perspectives— even if they don’t align with theirs. This helps create new points of view and challenges colleagues to think deeper. Creating venues for these conversations also builds curiosity, especially in situations where workers have different points of view.
Monitoring Conversations About Politics and Social Justice in the Workplace
For most people, the workplace is an inherently social environment, which means conversations about social justice and politics are naturally bound to arise. Opposing opinions and controversial topics, though, can quickly cross the lines of professionalism. Therefore, it is absolutely imperative that order is maintained— and that comes from the top.
Business leaders can establish a response team within the organization whose responsibility is to ensure speedy resolutions and mitigations. This team should have the training to recognize signs of employees in distress, both through conversations and observations.
For quicker reporting of conflicts in the workplace, promoting an anonymous reporting tool can be of huge help. Google, for example, has a central flagging tool that lets workers report content that may violate their policies without needing to physically talk with a manager.
The Future of Social and Political Dialogue
Banning social and political expression won’t guarantee the employer an easy path to mitigating difficult conversations. Moving forward, companies failing to properly respond to internal and external social issues can see their reputation damaged, even if they have good intentions.
More workers are increasingly wanting employers to address politics and social justice in the workplace. Employees will continue to demand changes in expression policies, dress codes, and sustainability practices to ensure they feel safe to bring their most authentic, honest, and genuine self to work.
There is never a shortage of controversial news and discourse amid the digital age. We predict that dialogue about social justice and politics will continue to be a focal point in the workplace and that brands will be expected to adapt their policies and practices accordingly.
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