It’s Not Just You: Workplace Political Tensions Are Particularly High in the US This Year

It’s Not Just You: Workplace Political Tensions Are Particularly High in the US This Year

No matter where in the world you live and work, you might have heard a little bit about the ongoing US presidential campaign. Marked by strong polarization and deep divisions both between Democrats and Republicans as well as within each party, for Americans, this “silly season” is bound to ruin more than a few friendships by November. Not only that, a new CareerBuilder survey finds that arguments about presidential politics are making their way into the office, with 30 percent of managers and 17 percent of employees saying they “have argued with a co-worker over a particular candidate this election season, most often about presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump”:

“With passions running high this political season, individuals run the risk of saying things or behaving in ways that can be considered unprofessional or discriminatory toward each other,” said Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer for CareerBuilder. “The tip to navigating the rough waters during election season is to make sure your conversations are fair and respectful. If you feel like political chit-chat is getting heated or confrontational, it’s time to walk away.”

Management is more likely than employees to argue about candidates, with employers in information technology (47 percent) taking the lead, followed by those in manufacturing (37 percent). … Overall, 19 percent of employers have argued with a co-worker over Donald Trump vs. 17 percent over Hillary Clinton. While both male and female employers say they have debated with a co-worker over Trump most (22 percent of men, 16 percent of women), men are nearly twice as likely as women to say they’ve argued with a co-worker over Clinton (21 percent vs. 11 percent).

When it comes to employees, 13 percent have argued with a co-worker over Donald Trump and 8 percent have argued over Hillary Clinton. Male employees (20 percent) reported a higher incidence of arguing politics at work than female employees (15 percent). Comparing age groups, younger workers (ages 18-24) are the most likely to report engaging in heated political debates at work at 24 percent.

Joseph Sohm/
Joseph Sohm/

According to another recent survey from SHRM, about a quarter of HR professionals have observed an increase in political tensions in the workplace this year. Most (72 percent) said their organizations discouraged political activity in the office, though only 24 percent said they had a formal, written policy on that. While most business leaders would probably prefer to keep this year’s particularly toxic flavor of politics out of the office, the Chicago Tribune’s Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz talks to one CEO who is encouraging political discourse among his employees this year:

Traditional taboos against discussing politics at work may be outdated in an age when social media platforms — far more popular than even four years ago — have people sharing political views around the clock, [founder and CEO of Chicago-based StratEx Adam] Ochstein said. “It is a big social shift that’s occurring right now,” Ochstein said. “I think it’s becoming more socially acceptable to discuss politics in the workplace.”

The shift is happening during a particularly polarizing election season marked by highly sensitive topics that some worry could spell trouble at the watercooler. Some employers are bracing for an inflammatory season. Philippe Weiss, the Chicago-based managing director of employment law training firm Seyfarth Shaw at Work, said queries have jumped 50 to 60 percent from employers concerned about handling the heightened interest and tension around the presidential candidates.

If you, like Ochstein, happen to be a pro-politics executive, be mindful of the legal implications of political chatter in the office:

Criticism of Clinton could veer into negative comments about women. Voicing support for temporary bans on Muslims entering the country and building a border wall to keep out Mexican immigrants could lead to religion or national origin claims. Discussing the mass shooting in Orlando, Fla., could trigger derogatory remarks about gay people, who are not protected under federal law but are in Illinois.

“It’s becoming a lot harder to get into politics without getting into a protected class,” said David Barron, a lawyer in the Houston office of Cozen O’Connor who represents management in labor and employment cases. Conduct violates the law if it is deemed “severe and persistent” enough to create a hostile work environment. … To accommodate heightened interest in the election while keeping the focus and peace at work, some large companies are training managers to be alert to tense conversations and intervene early, before discussions devolve into shouting matches, Seyfarth’s Weiss said.

The key is to address the problem from a productivity standpoint, pointing out that the conversation is distracting people from their work, so that it doesn’t look like the boss disagrees with someone’s political views.