What Political Discussion in the Workplace Can Teach Your Company

As the national election season advances—and heats up messily—you may notice uncomfortable conversations popping up in the office. You may have a policy about keeping politics and religion out of workplace conversation, but with the abundance of media, and the 24-hour nature of it, it’s hard to escape a hint of political debate in even casual conversations. When employee conversations about the national election are noticed, and when those conversations are contentious, you may notice more than just differences in political opinion. If you are an observant person, you’ll notice the demographic differences within your workplace. It isn’t just the differences between generations in the workplace that a company should be aware of; it’s the demographic, or cultural, differences.

An article by David Sharos, posted to the Chicago Tribune Website, “Trump vs. Clinton battle seeping into the workplace,” notes how the election is affecting workplace relationships: “Toni Williams, who works as a Human Resources manager for Exelon, said she is concerned about how the ongoing rhetoric of the campaign will affect the nuclear plants she represents. ‘I need to understand given the political climate the everyday support I need to offer as an HR manager with our employees,” she said. “There perhaps is the need to remain neutral but still have a voice —there needs to be a balance. People can get really charged up.’”

As a Learning professional who coordinates work with your Human Resources department, what do you feel your role is during the election season? Is it to simply train managers that they should remind employees that, regardless of how strongly they feel about one or the other candidates, political conversations are not appropriate for the workplace? Or is to take the debates occurring between the candidates and bring those conversations into the workplace for constructive conversation?

I’ve always been interested in politics (I even minored in political science in college), so I’m biased toward enjoyment of it, but I think there are productive ways to bring election conversation into the workplace. Those conversations may highlight the different demographic/cultural viewpoints in your workplace, which may be helpful to those leading the company. It will teach you about the diverse preferences and expectations of your employees, and how you can best craft the policies that govern them.

For example, over the summer, the topic of equal pay in the workplace and maternity leave policy came up. After Ivanka Trump’s speech on behalf of her father at the Republican National Convention, there were reports that came out questioning whether she paid interns at her company. A debate ensued on whether interns can be expected to be paid. That’s a great debate to have at any company. You may be surprised at how divided your company’s leadership and mid- and entry-level employees are on this topic. When I was in college, the idea of paying an intern would be laughed at. The payment, at best, was a credit earned toward your college degree. At worst, it was just the right to put the experience on your resume, along with whatever lessons you learned along the way. I was fine with that, and I think I would still be fine with it because I would worry the need to pay would limit my internship opportunities. But for the current young generation, there may be a growing expectation that interns receive payment. What do you think the viewpoints at your company are on this topic? I wonder if it would follow a pattern in which Baby Boomers and Generation Xers agree that the experience is what is most important, while the Millennials would contend they deserve to be paid at least a little in dollars and cents for the work they do as interns.

The subject of paid maternity leave also has come up. Questions have arisen on whether Trump has offered paid maternity leave to his employees. It hasn’t been clear so far as to whether he does or doesn’t. What do you think about debating that topic this election cycle? It’s a good conversation to have. I’ve heard my current company offers just two weeks of paid maternity leave. That’s a hard one for me to swallow, and I don’t even have any children, and probably won’t be having any. Yet the idea that a mid-size company with maybe 1,000 employees, and multiple locations, wouldn’t offer at least a month, or even a couple months, of paid maternity leave is upsetting. On the other side of the debate, some would argue that paid maternity leave makes it harder for companies to profitably exist, and may even dissuade companies from hiring women of child-bearing age. What do you think the majority of your employees would think about the question of whether paid maternity leave should be offered, and, if so, how much? Debate of this question would teach you and your company’s other leaders about the cultural divides in your workplace. Like the generational gap that may exist between those who expect interns to be paid, and those who don’t, there also may be a generational divide on the expectations for paid maternity leave. There also may be gaps in education level, and even suburban versus urban living, in those employees who support generous paid maternity leave and those who don’t.

Diversity in the workplace long has been a huge topic of conversation. Most Learning professionals interviewed for Training seem to agree it’s a good thing. There is a debate, however, on how best to encourage it. You might be surprised, that not all your employees are excited about a more diverse workplace. The immigration debate in which Trump has supported stricter controls on immigration from Mexico and Muslim countries, and the building of a wall between Mexico and the U.S., has sparked conversations about diversity in our society. What kind of company do you want to have? I’ve always felt a more diverse workforce wasn’t just morally right, but correct from a business point of view, as a more diverse workforce can more effectively create products and services that appeal to a greater number of people. On the other side of the debate, some of your employees—believe it or not—may feel that a homogenous workplace is best. They may, erroneously or not, believe that your customers are mostly of one type, and that, therefore, those who create the products and services sold to them also should be of that type. Or they may feel a more homogenous workplace equals a more cohesive workplace. That would be a revealing discussion to have with your workforce in a special forum.

One idea is to look for volunteers, or select at random, a cross-section of employees throughout your company, and have them offer their opinions either anonymously, or in an open, in-person setting, on these topics. Be careful not to tie the topics to one or the other candidates. But don’t shy away from discussing the topics in the news that are relevant to the workplace. What you’ll learn about your employees is invaluable. You’ll be able to serve them better, and, in turn, they may stick with you longer, and work together better to keep your customers happy.

What productive conversations, related to the workplace and business, can arise from the political debates happening right now? As Learning professionals, how can you create a safe and constructive forum for those discussions to take place?


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