HR as a referee: Managing political discussion at work

Emmanuel Zvada

WE are just close to elections in Zimbabwe and normally during these times, political discussions are everywhere including at workplaces.

As the country’s political polarisation seeps into the workplace, HR often ends up in the middle. With the incredible attention that this year’s election is receiving, the topic of Zanu PF vs Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) is bound to come up while at work.

Teaching employees how to navigate these tricky conversations is not a luxury; it is a necessity. This article will explain the human resources (HR)’s role in maintaining a calm political environment at workplaces.

Conversations related to politics can be disruptive to a harmonious, positive work environment. There are several ways in which HR leaders can guide their teams without causing an in-office riot. HR must put measures in place regarding that because when left unmanaged, politics often becomes fodder for discussion among employees. Talking politics in the workplace distracts employees from the commonly shared goals and hampers the common purpose of the organisation.

It is the responsibility of efficient HR practitioners to avoid political discussion among employees in the workplace. Employee views will most certainly run across the political spectrum, but what role does HR take in encouraging free and open dialogue while balancing an employee’s right to feel safe in the workplace? Some companies encourage political debate while others shy away. But no matter which route your company takes, ensuring conversations do not escalate into conflicts is vital.

Define the parameters of discussing politics at work

Clearly defining what the company deems acceptable and unacceptable when talking politics at work is critical. Cultivating a culture of respect is key to encouraging healthy dialogue among employees. Without mutual respect, morale declines and company culture takes a direct hit. A company policy directing employees when and how it’s relevant and useful to discuss politics in the workplace can help workers understand how some of their co-workers see things. It becomes a problem when employees use political disagreements as a ruse to harass co-workers.

It should be company policy that all opinions are welcomed, valued and respected, but there is a time and place for politics.

Prohibit use of company property for political purposes

An easy step for companies to take is to create a policy banning the use of company property for political purposes. For example, prohibitions on the use of  copy machines or other office supplies for political activity may be wise. Politics is very personal, and we tend to hold our beliefs extremely strongly hence it’s something that should be on individual level. Politics is a topic where emotions run strong, the stakes are high, and opinions vary hence including such discussion at work can cause unnecessary tension because of differing views. The employer can do this by implementing rules prohibiting various activities, such as political campaigning, during business hours.

Put a formal policy in place to direct employee behaviour

While larger companies are more likely to have official policies than small businesses, half of employees who have been subjected to uncomfortable political discussions at work believe their employers should have policies that address political issues. This way, the rules are transparent and accessible to everyone. HR must also ensure that in that policy issues such as sending emails of a political nature on company computers and using a company email address to communicate to other employees, customers or industry partners, wearing political or campaign attire is prohibited. This sounds naïve but it will also protect the company.

Always remind employees to be respectful

Political views are an extremely personal matter. Everyone has reasons to believe what they do, and there is no standardised solution. Ensure that employees are sincere in their respect for another person’s views, and have them truly consider why another person may feel the way they do on a certain topic. By taking a humane approach, your employees can respectfully share opinions with each other without getting nasty. Reiterating core values and company policy regarding harassment, bullying is important also as this will remind workers of the importance of not allowing political differences to become disruptive at the workplace.

Monitor workplace discussions

Monitor workplace discussions and activity, and be prepared to step in before a situation escalates. As an employer, you have a responsibility to stop any disruptions that can negatively impact the working environment, customer service or the team’s overall performance. Make all employees feel comfortable and welcome in your workplace. In addition to the hostility that political discussions can perpetuate, you have legal concerns as well. A group of employees discussing a political party’s or candidate’s position on protected factors — race, religion, national origin or gender — can trigger discrimination complaints from other employees who feel that their colleagues are biased against them.

Shun all political activities at  work

When elections are around the corner, an outright ban on political discussions in the workplace may be unwarranted as well as impractical in most businesses. Doing so would likely lead to employee resentment over the level of “control” exercised by the employer. Employers must be careful when regulating an employee’s off-duty conduct. In general, before considering a policy or practice that regulates an employee’s off-duty political speech, an employer must determine whether there is a legitimate business reason to limit the conduct. Examples of a legitimate business reason might include the company’s reputation, disruption to the workplace and employee morale or potential legal liability to the employer.

Periodically remind everyone of the rules.

Reminders of no-politics rules are important, especially as elections approach or certain events with the potential to inflame emotions and cause divisions dominate news cycles. Examples of what you can do include using  group meetings as opportunities to remind employees which discussions are off limits at work and to emphasise practising mutual respect and maintaining civility. Proactively write and send a series of emails focused on this topic leading up to elections or in response to current events. Offer regular training on issues such as discrimination, harassment and professional conduct.

Talking politics at work is never a good idea for the harm it does to interpersonal relationships, productivity, performance and the overall culture. If you are a private employer, you have the power to take control over the situation and regulate what is discussed in your workplace in compliance with the Labour Relations Act and your code of conduct.

  • Emmanuel Zvada is an award-winning global HR practitioner and the managing consultant for 3rdeye Africa Consulting Group Zimbabwe and Namibia. For comments inbox or call +263771467441

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