Political Arguments Rise...in the Workplace

A new study shows four in 10 US workers get into political disagreements at the office. How leaders should manage the distractions.

Two colleagues working on a project together are in a heated discussion. Their voices are growing louder and their gestures more animated. But they aren’t arguing over a missed deadline or new budget proposal. They aren’t even talking about the project at all. What they are fighting over is much more personal: politics.

If it seems like talking about politics has gone from workplace taboo to workplace norm, it’s because it has. According to a new study from the Society of Human Resource Managers, more than half of the working Americans it polled say talking about politics and political issues at work has become much more common over the last four years. Moreover, 42% of the workers say they have personally been involved in a political disagreement at work, and 44% say they have witnessed colleagues arguing about politics in the office.

Ronald Porter, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry’s Global Human Resources Center of Expertise, says the problem isn’t talking about politics. The problem, he says, is that the conversation has gotten more divided, more hostile, and more emotional than in the past—and potentially more discriminatory. “Many people today take an all-or-nothing approach to their political views,” says Porter, “and given the volatility of the issues, organizations have to set clear boundaries around appropriate behavior.” Where those boundaries are depends on the organization, ranging from policies stricter than what the law requires to open group discussions that mirror diversity and inclusion conversations.

In fact, according to the study, one-third of workers say their workplace is biased against different political perspectives, and 10% say they have been treated differently because of their political views. Those results parallel a 2017 Korn Ferry study where 56% of executives said disclosing their political affiliation in the workplace could negatively impact their career and 23% said the current political environment interferes with their job performance.

With the 2020 US presidential election race kicking into high gear, political talk around the office will likely ramp up in proportion. On top of that, consumers, employees, and investors are increasingly pressuring companies to take a stand on climate change, diversity and inclusion, social impact, and other issues that go hand-in-hand with political discourse.

From a leadership perspective, any stance a CEO takes can affect the organization’s brand externally and its operating environment internally, says George Atkinson, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry’s Global Human Resources Center of Expertise. He says CEOs must work closely with human resources leaders and have transparent discussions about how their political positions can impact the company. To be sure, particularly at a time when people are increasingly looking to work for organizations that align with their values, any public political position can attract or deter talent in equal measure.

“Human resources are being held more and more responsible for an organization’s culture, and they need to partner with leadership on anything sensitive,” says Atkinson.