Politics Return to the Office—and It’s Not Going Well

With elections around the corner—and more people back at work—firms have their hands full keeping politics off the table.

The executive knew that her boss’ political leanings differed from her own, and duly kept her affiliations to herself. Then she lost out on a round of promotions. She shrugged it off. A month later, her bonus was smaller than expected. She noticed the boss making a few veiled political comments and found herself worrying that he had visited her Facebook page and was subtly retaliating.

With big elections in the US just weeks away, this scenario is heating up and, according to a new study from the Society for Human Resource Management, has been for some time. Almost half of workers are experiencing political disagreements at work, according to the survey, and one in four are experiencing differential treatment (positive or negative) based on their political views—twice as many as in 2019. Experts say this environment of antagonism is threatening teamwork, productivity, and engagement.

Much of this happened while many workers were remote and one-on-one conflicts were fewer. Returns to office have revived break room and watercooler chats, where political affiliations tend to sneak out, says Ron Porter, senior client partner in the Global Human Resources Center of Excellence at Korn Ferry. “When you’re working from home, you don’t know how your coworker’s favorite baseball team is doing, but you also don’t know what your coworker thinks about Donald Trump.”

The political climate has, of course, been intensifying for over eight years, with many companies managing increasingly polarized workforces. But a series of recent political events and court decisions have pushed some executives and organizations into taking stands on divisive issues. “Companies waded in, and took bold, political stands, and now we’re seeing that play out,” says Dan Kaplan, senior client partner in the CHRO practice at Korn Ferry.

The survey’s findings indicate that firms are struggling to respond effectively. Porter says that they can start by revisiting workplace behavior trainings to make sure that in-office handling of politics is openly addressed; typically these trainings give prominence to religious and gender discrimination, with less time and space given to politics. “Politics, religion, and money are the things you just don’t talk about at work,” he says. “That should be the stance for companies, now more than ever.” Rather than trying to referee disputes, he suggests that managers and companies simply work to keep the topics out of the work environment altogether.

If a company bans workplace discussion of politics, some employees might conclude that their point of view is being pushed out of the workplace, when instead the policy is meant to protect everyone and foster teamwork. To avoid this, an explanation of why the policy exists is essential, says Elise Freedman, practice leader for workforce transformation at Korn Ferry. “Just be transparent about why the company is doing it, and what it means,” she says. It’s also worthwhile to remind employees that these conversations can only go downhill, with little chance of changing coworkers’ beliefs. “It’s a no-win situation,” she says.

Experts say that corporate leaders should avoid public communications that could change how workers feel about them or create polarization, even on outside-of-work platforms like Facebook. “The single best piece of advice I’ve heard is that the day job of an executive is to be as moderate as possible,” says Kaplan. “We need to be coaching leaders to be centrist, down the middle, and just not get into it at work.”