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Keeping the political peace in the workplace

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It was bound to happen. But I didn’t think it would happen to my friend Scott — my only friend who is an ex-Marine and who comes complete with the tats, Harley and really scary sunglasses.  He’s not exactly Switzerland, with friends, over a pitcher of ‘ritas and a bowl of guac.  But the Monday after the health care vote, he kept his head down and mouth shut while two colleagues went at it in the hall right outside his office. Lines were drawn very loudly and personal insults hurled from behind political positions.  Surrounded by all that commotion, Scott stealthily e-mailed me this message:  “Please! Write something now about how to handle political battles at work!”

This is the first time in generations when what is happening in Washington is impacting all of us very personally, directly and obviously.  It’s making roughly 50% of us really mad.  Friends are turning against friends. Co-workers are turning against co-workers. And that’s getting in the way of business.

How do you keep the peace in the workplace, when everyone has a position on really important, incendiary, and personal current events?  To find out, I called David Russo, former HR vice president of SAS Institute (currently #1 on Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For list), founder of the consulting firm, Eno-River Associates, and author of the book, “17 Rules Successful Companies Use to Attract and Keep Top Talent” (FT Press, 2010).

First of all, he says, prohibiting political speech is probably not the way to go.

“People bring this stuff to work every day,” he says,  “So to arbitrarily try to put a cap on it is like lighting a slow-burning fuse on a bomb. An explosion is bound to happen.”  The solution, he says, is to allow the conversations, but put parameters around how the conversations will unfold. He suggests four expectations:

  • Insist on civility.  No name-calling. Use indoor voices. Practice courtesy.
  • Conversations shouldn’t get in the way of productivity. This is still a workplace and people have work to do, including the combatants.
  • Put the burden on your employees to come to the conversation with facts. Russo says that when the conversation is fact-based, hopefully that will tamp down the hype, emotions, and volume. And, I would add, rhetorical tricks that are designed to shut down conversation by marginalizing each other’s political position. “Create a resource for your employees to go to for unbiased facts on the subject,” Russo adds.  He also says that this is an opportunity for the company to articulate with its employees what its official position is on the issue at hand.
  • Rely on your already-established policy on behaviors and verbal abuse. Just because the argument might be a national-level dispute, that doesn’t mean that it’s too large for the policies you put in place during more peaceful times. Don’t have an already-established policy?  Now is a really good time to develop it. Russo says, “This is one time when your people will completely understand why you’re dedicating some time, energy and focus on this.  No one will say that it’s arbitrary. Not these days.”

Image credit, sdominick, via iStock