InsightsNovember 5, 2018

Trolls in the Cafeteria: Managing Political Speech in the Workplace

Political polarization in the workplace is a phenomenon that does not respect industries or borders. Since the election of President Trump, Brexit and the ascent of nationalist politicians in numerous countries around the world have focused new attention on this longstanding problem. In today’s fast-paced, collaborative business culture, however, this intensification presents new problems that companies choose to ignore at their peril. Do they provide safe spaces for political activism of every stripe? Do they join with a segment of their employees to applaud or oppose policies of the government in power? The challenges presented by these choices are not limited to internal corporate harmony.

Increasingly, customer-facing employees, like many citizens, are using their own social media channels to signal their “tribal” affiliations. Customers with equally passionate partisan views are pushing back, urging boycotts of the businesses where these employees work. With the exception of mainstream media organizations, whose rules on public partisanship by employees are well established, the world of employee politics and how companies should handle these issues is increasingly murky. Because it is unlikely that the fever of political polarization is unlikely to abate in the near future, we need new ways of thinking about the increasingly contentious workplace.

In the USA, it was clear from the moment of Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the 2016 presidential election that things were going to be different. News reports in the succeeding 48 hours described the situation in numerous schools in California in which teachers, overwhelmed by their “grief” at the outcome, failed to come to work and indeed urged parents and students to join them in protest. On the morning after the election, schools across the country announced that they were offering counseling to students “upset” by Donald Trump’s victory. Unsurprisingly, supporters of President Trump’s victory were equally vocal in communicating their displeasure with teachers expressing partisan views. An Orange Coast College teacher in Orange County, CA, received death threats and temporarily left the state after calling the election of Donald Trump “an act of terrorism”.

Even before the election, it had become clear that politics was becoming more than mildly disruptive. In the midst of the 2016 campaign season, according to the Harvard Business Review, the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence surveyed a representative sample of the US workforce and found that one in four employees was negatively affected by political talk at work (Ballard, 2017). Working Americans said that, as a result of political discussions, they felt tense or stressed out (17 per cent), were more cynical and negative at work (15 per cent), had more difficulty getting work done (10 per cent), were less productive (13 per cent) and were producing lower-quality work (10 per cent). A repeat of the survey in the months after the election showed that these negative feelings had by no means abated by the time President Trump was inaugurated.

On the consumer front, it is no surprise that Starbucks, with both its ubiquity and well-known progressive politics, should have become the storm front in employee-to-customer relations. In June 2017, as Inc. Magazine reported, “Kayla Hart walked into a Starbucks in Charlotte, NC and ordered iced green tea (Zetlin, 2017). (Instead of writing her name on the cup, the barista wrote “Build a wall,” so that when the beverage was ready, store staff shouted out “Build a wall!”–laughing loudly. Everyone in the shop turned around to see what was going on, and Hart walked out because she was too embarrassed to stay. The reason for all this is that Hart was wearing a Donald Trump t-shirt.” While Starbucks issued a statement apologizing for the incident, many commentators insisted that the employee should be fired.

In the UK, astonishment at the results of the Brexit referendum was, if anything, even more pronounced than at the election of President Trump. In the UK, workplace bullying and discrimination over the outcome tended to focus on “Leave” proponents claiming that they were being ostracized and even passed over for promotion because of their views. Under British law, employers are liable for any workplace discrimination linked to an employee’s “deeply-held philosophical beliefs.” While some legal commentators believe this to be a high bar, others argue that a pro/anti-EU stance would fall into this category of such beliefs.

In other parts of Europe, it is the migrant crisis that has been the primary driver of political divisiveness in the workplace, indeed in every facet of life. How much of an issue politics in the workplace becomes for employers and employees naturally differs from country to country. In Germany, free speech protections are, for historical reasons connected with the Nazi era, particularly strong, but even there, experts warn that employees should be cautious in identifying their employer in their own personal political utterances.

In light of the increasingly toxic quality of political divisiveness in the workplace, it is critical that company leaders spell out their expectations regarding politics at work. The three critical components are:

  1. Clearly spelled out policies on what is legal and appropriate.
  2. Modeling behavior from the top that gives guidance to the workforce on the tone and approach that the company favors.
  3. Intervening as necessary when political divisiveness steps over the line.

Clearly spelled out policies Having a clearly spelled out policy on workplace expression may seem like a straightforward exercise but there are a number of reasons why companies should pay close attention to communicating both the law and their own perspective. The first is that many employees do not fully grasp the limitations on their right to free speech in the workplace and need to have these limitations clearly explained. The second is that in the age of the internet and social media, the lines between private and public speech have essentially been erased, creating many ambiguous situations. Perhaps the most notorious recent example involves the Google software engineer James Damore who posted a ten page “manifesto” on an internal Google message board disparaging the company’s attempts to close the gender gap. Damore was fired by Google for “perpetuating gender stereotypes” and although he ultimately failed in his lawsuit against the company, it subsequently issued new guidelines to promote greater civility in issues-based employee communications. It empowered internal message board administrators to quell and remove “hostile” speech. Lest companies think that this is a simple matter of civility, Wired Magazine has reported that, in the months leading up to the Damore manifesto, “Google employees told WIRED that a small group of coworkers was using these online forums to incite outsiders to harass them, and to goad them into inflammatory statements as way to “weaponize HR”. Even at a highly self-aware company such as Google, there is a great concern that the new guidelines not inhibit open discussion of issues by employees. As an internal FAQ on the new policy stated: “The important aspect to consider is how you’re communicating your views—you should be debating the issue, not attacking the person. Your tone and words matter, especially in a workplace as uniquely collaborative as Google, and we want to continue to see a culture of constructive discourse in our interactions with one another.”

Modeling behavior from the top There is, perhaps, nothing more important in managing political discourse in the workplace, as in many other areas, than the tone from the top. Well-crafted messages that are authentic to the spirit and culture of a company can give employees a clear sense of what to expect as they engage in political discussions with co-workers and express their own political views in social media.

The best example of this type of leadership, in our view, came from Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook who, in the aftermath of President Trump’s election, wrote employees an email that elegantly laid out the importance of civility and empathy within the construct of Apple’s own culture and mission. He referred specifically to the fact that Apple employees had voted for different candidates and that this was a reflection of Apple’s diversity. He amplified this sentiment by pointing to the company’s mission of using technology to connect people to each other all over the world. He concluded by suggesting that employees reflect not on the partisan opinions of their fellow workers but on their states of mind: “I’ve always looked at Apple as one big family and I encourage you to reach out to your co-workers if they are feeling anxious.” Handled less deftly, this communication could have been little more than corporate pabulum, but by creating an Apple-specific framing he was able to make the message both empathetic and authentic.

While messages such as Tim Cook’s are an important tool for managing politics in the workplace, it is just as important to have regular discussions on this topic with managers and supervisors. It is they who are in the best position to model good behavior on a day to day basis and to reinforce an atmosphere of respect and civility.

Appropriate intervention Not surprisingly, appropriate corporate intervention to stem hostile speech in the workplace requires active monitoring of message boards, email and public commentary by employees about the company. Most employees now understand that this type of monitoring is appropriate and leading practitioners regularly remind employees that this type of monitoring is taking place. If an issue does become overheated, it is critical to refrain from immediately creating more heat by calling out potential offenders publicly. Remember that even hostile speech often stems from passionate political beliefs and the surest way to reduce tensions in the workplace caused by such speech is to start by counseling the individual employee or group of employees involved. Make sure they understand both their rights of free expression and the limitations on that expression in the workplace and demonstrate that you understand where their energy is coming from.

However, most employers have extensive rights to minimize disruption in the workplace and, if necessary, you should exercise those rights to ensure that hostile political speech does not impact the performance and working experience of other employers. Irrespective of an individual situation, the right message to employees is a combination of communicating the importance of civility and respect in the workplace while at the same time encouraging them to act on their passions on their personal time, to attend meetings, solicit political support, even run for office. Because the best way to get trolls out of the cafeteria is to show them the way to the hustings.

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