Tension at the Water Cooler: When Your Employees Won't Stop Talking Politics

March 10, 2017 • 6 min read
Breanna Lambert

Breanna Lambert


Whether you’re onboard with the way things are now or wish the election had gone differently, the current political climate poses many distractions. As a small business owner, your political affiliation may not be the same as your employees, but what you do share is the goal of keeping the business moving forward and upward, and keeping everyone involved feeling fulfilled and motivated. So, how do you manage employees talking about politics at work if it starts to affect the business?

These days, there’s talk of politics everywhere you turn. It’s in the news, the papers, on social media, and increasingly, at work. In the middle of the campaign season, the American Psychological Association surveyed Americans in the workforce and found political discussions in the workplace caused 15 percent to feel more cynical at work, and 13 percent to be less productive. If anything, the problem seems to have metastasized since then. In February, a small survey found 29 percent of respondents reporting they’ve been less productive since the election. Political discussion is getting harder and harder to avoid.

As the leader in your company, your employees are likely looking to you to set the tone for how to treat political conversations while at work. It’s important to acknowledge current events, particularly as some of them, like immigrant work status, are work-related. But you want to be clear that business needs to go on as usual, without alienating or demoralizing anyone. It’s a tough line to skirt, but it’s not impossible with some planning and thought.

Consider holding a quick company all-hands to address political talk in the workplace, so everyone’s clear on your stance when it comes to what’s appropriate, and what’s better for after hours. From there, you can meet with staff individually on a regular or as-needed basis for check-ins. You don’t want people falling silent when you approach, or tiptoeing around you, but it’s important to create a renewed focus on business objectives at a time when every day brings new current events to talk about.

Here are some approaches to take to keep employees engaged and inspired:

Encourage scheduled meetings and after-hours meetups

During your all-hands, let everyone know political talk in a productive, goal-oriented manner is encouraged, as long as it’s not derailing productivity. Welcome one-on-one talks where staff can address questions or discuss concerns with you. Some of the current administration’s top initiatives could affect employees – immigration and healthcare, for example –and you don’t want to make light of these very real concerns. Your employees should feel they have an outlet, support, and answers, where possible.

It’s possible that workers may want to participate in demonstrations that affect their work, like the recent Day Without Immigrants and A Day Without a Woman strikes. Make sure you have a policy in place and that everyone is aware of it, before there’s fallout from an incident.

Keep in mind that there’s more than one way to demonstrate support to your employees. Rather than closing up shop, you can organize an on-site option for taking action, like a postcard station or donations. Brainstorm with your workers; it will matter to them that you care enough to spend the time it takes.

And when employees feel energized to take action on certain issues, suggest that they organize meetups for after work hours, when they won’t be dividing their attention between two (or more) tasks.

Champion wins within the business

Bring the focus back to the business by celebrating news everyone can agree on. Even if it’s a small win, don’t let it go unnoticed. Share it in email, as a message on the bulletin board, during meetings, or any other place everyone is sure to see it. Use it as an opportunity to emphasize teamwork since the good news was a result of everyone working together.

Give kudos to individuals

There’s no better way to get someone’s attention than to give them praise. This approach will also inspire a “keep up the good work” spirit that with luck, will be infectious within the company. According to this study shared by Gallup, individuals who receive praise increase their productivity and increase engagement among their colleagues. Sounds like the perfect plan to swing the focus back to day-to-day business activity.

Schedule team building activities

Again, regardless of political affiliation, colleagues need to be encouraged to come together on common ground. Fortunately, you don’t need to strap the sales associates into a ropes course to encourage collaboration. Little activities here and there, including during the workday, can go a long way towards making everyone feel like they’re on the same team. Here’s a great roundup of some activities to try.

Assign productivity

Employees may be allowing themselves to get distracted because their workloads are light. Don’t create busy work or overload people, but look at where you might be able to push up timelines or get going on that big project you’ve had on the list for months. You can crowdsource suggestions, too. Ask employees if there are any projects they’d like to initiate.

Be consistent with boundaries

Nonetheless, you may have staff members who struggle to stay on task as a result of political distractions. Remember, employees are looking to you for cues on how to proceed. Don’t dismiss your employees’ concerns, but take individuals aside and be clear about what’s acceptable, and what needs to get checked at the door when he or she walks in for work. Once everyone is in a good groove together, you don’t want one impassioned individual to cause chaos.

No one knows what the next four years will hold, so it’s important to find ways to keep the peace at work, but make sure everyone feels they can still be themselves at a place where they spend the majority of their week. As the leader of the company, it’s up to you to set the example.

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