With the run-up to the November election, it’s getting ugly on both sides of the political aisle. Both in the U.S. and abroad, the political conversation has been, literally, Trumped. While Donald Trump certainly dominates the media coverage, the truth is people have real issues on their mind and this political season is renewing engaged political discourse for most, if not all, of us. The problem is, while the story of Trump is fueling the race to the White House, it could also be fueling project conflict in the workplace.
Politics and projects are two very different things. Political talk can be divisive and, while you want a diverse team, if those differences aren’t working towards complementary ends then your project is going to mirror the Washington-style gridlock. How can you as a leader allow for your team to express their political beliefs without turning the workplace into a civil war?
Maybe one answer is to keep the controversial topics off limits. But stifling debate during a presidential election could feel undemocratic. While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem, we’ve approached the subject from a variety of angles to offer different ideas that can help keep the civility in civics.
Keep It To Yourself
Whether you’re a manager or a team member, it can be tempting to want to follow Trump’s lead and let political correctness go by the wayside. But many may be surprised to learn that political speech at work doesn’t always fall under the protection of the First Amendment. For example, the Hatch Act forbids federal employees from wearing partisan buttons or hanging campaign posters or displaying political stickers where they work. Beyond federal employees, employers have the authority to set the tone in the office and discipline those they deem acting unprofessionally, even if that is political speech.
Remember, this is strictly an on-site policy. Many states have laws to protect employees from disciplinary actions from their employers for political activities taking place outside the office and after working hours. And employers who are politically active have restrictions on their speech, as well, to avoid fostering their views on their employees.
Nevertheless, it is a good idea to see what the company policy towards political activity is and understand it thoroughly before trying to enact it. What can also be helpful is having a meeting or distributing this policy to employees so they, too, are cognizant of the boundaries of political rhetoric at work. It can serve as an opportunity to have a forum in which they can buy in to the policy or protest it within legal bounds, so they know they’re being heard and their comments are being considered. Despite your personal politics, however, as a team lead it’s probably best not to choose sides.
Keep It Civil
Regardless of policy, in reality, people talk politics. You may be able to manage a meeting and keep the conversation on target, but around the water cooler your power is and should be limited. If team members don’t have some autonomy and downtime, then their work is going to suffer, so the best bet is to monitor and guide these conversations away from dangerous waters that can threaten morale.
One thing is to set an example. If politics comes up, as it inevitably will during a presidential election, keep a polite, friendly and casual tone. Your job is to lead a project, not advocate for policy and a candidate. That goes for your team members, as well. Allow them their political beliefs, but deny them a stage on which to try and convert others to their viewpoints. No one likes a lecture from you or another team member. It’s condescending and counterproductive.
There are also ways to make political arguments less likely to occur, for example, having a no-internet or electronic-communications rule during company time. This would avoid “likes” on a candidate’s Facebook page from a team member who’s politically active, for instance. Or you could ban the use of solicitations at work, which would stop supporters from asking you to donate to their candidates. Keep in mind, such rules will also prevent people from soliciting for charities or, say, selling Girl Scout cookies. So you want to set up rules that are enforceable and find the right balance for the culture at your workplace.
Of course, politics, like religion, has become almost a matter of faith, and people are often so passionate about the subject as to see those who disagree with them as somehow morally deficient. When political discussions devolve into disrespect, then you have to either walk away or defuse what can potentially destroy the working relationships on your team. You can also try and change the subject, but if that doesn’t work, a more direct method may be called for. Note that we can agree to disagree, or say the conversation is getting too heated and we need to drop it. Whatever you do, nip political poison in the bud.
After you’ve made a decision about how you’re going to handle political talk in the office, you have to make sure that policy is clearly communicated and transparent for all involved, and then enforce it evenhandedly. Consistency is crucial.
While political speech at work may not be covered by the First Amendment, that doesn’t mean you can outright ban it. If your organization has a lawyer, it’s best to consult with them. It also helps if you do some research on your own and look into the local laws regarding political speech in the workplace. Know your labor and state laws, because they’re not the same regarding this issue everywhere.
Outside of what’s legislatively permitted, consider this but another responsibility that falls under the jurisdiction of leadership. As a project lead you have to negotiate any number of unpleasant changes that come up, and though most of them are more practical and work-related, navigating the impact of Trump and other political footballs is but one more arrow in the quiver of your soft skills.
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