Boss Skills: Refereeing Political Discussions at Work

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Political discussions are unavoidable these days, even at work. Last month we looked at how old boundaries have dissolved in the vitriol of the 2016 election and how employees can navigate this new landscape with their coworkers.

But what if you are the boss? (Or the manager or supervisor?) Your job is to keep your team on task, set clear boundaries for engagement and fairness, and model good neutral political behavior yourself, so as not to alienate any of your employees.

The FruitGuys spoke to two experts about ways to juggle these challenges. Lynn Taylor is a workplace expert and the author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job. Cabot Brown is the CEO of Carabiner LLC, a San Francisco–based financial advisory firm specializing in health care, education, and sustainability.

Leadership by Example
Both Taylor and Brown agree on a general approach: model good behavior for your staff by communicating clearly, being thoughtful about your words, and keeping the focus on the task at hand—work.

As the supervisor, you are essentially the parent in the office. And as any parent knows, success does not start with making strict rules and yelling at violators. You have to let your staff make choices and guide them if and when they make mistakes.

A simple ban on political discussions or Internet use at work simply isn’t realistic. It’s impossible to make business decisions today without discussing the new administration’s political proposals and potential effects, and the Internet is an essential tool for research and communication. When asked about banning personal Internet use at work, Brown vetoed it: “It’s just impractical. You have to trust your employees, and treat people like adults until something untoward happens. Those sorts of prohibitions are always going to backfire, and they show, I think, a lot of disrespect. …But if the work’s not getting done? That’s a problem.”

As Brown suggests, it’s better to focus on productivity than on restrictions. Employees need to get their work done.

That said, political disagreements in the office can poison relationships, distract bystanders, and hurt productivity. If verbal skirmishes break out, managers should subtly refocus discussions to the work at hand, facts, analysis, and your organization’s future. “The best approach is to keep things neutral and focused on the specific topic at hand, not personalities, emotional topics, or personal viewpoints,” Taylor told The FruitGuys. “You’ll irritate the least amount of colleagues and keep your sanity.”

The time for you as a manager to intervene directly is when political disagreements are spilling into the larger office environment. Sometimes this is obvious—for example, if arguments continue at length and turn into yelling matches—but there may be more subtle problems, too, such as a staffer with an unpopular opinion who might feel persecuted or even threatened for dissenting, even quietly, against the prevailing political views in your office.

if you aren’t careful to create an environment where people can agree to disagree, you could lose such an employee, who might quit without telling you why or might even bring a lawsuit against you for allowing an intimidating work environment. Being fair to all political views and treating all employees equally, regardless of your personal political opinions, is key to creating a successful office culture.

Talk to HR
The HR department is designed to handle personnel conflicts, and you should work closely with them at all times. The written personnel policy is a legal contract between your employer and your staff, and it determines what is allowed versus what could lead to a lawsuit. It’s a good idea to review company policy about issues such as personal use of company computers and phones, use of social media during work hours, and behavior toward colleagues.

Setting, communicating, and reinforcing clear standards that apply to everybody and every discussion, political or not, is the best way to nip potential conflicts in the bud.

Remember that it’s never OK for you or any employee to insult or threaten a coworker, or to disparage ethnicities, religions, genders, sexual orientations, or countries of origin in the workplace. Period. Behavior like this can easily get your company sued, which could get you fired and/or named in a lawsuit.

Watch Your Own Words
As a supervisor, you’re judged by a stricter standard than other employees, even if that seems unfair. As Brown says, “You are in this position of responsibility, and therefore what you say has different weight than if you were just mouthing off.”

As a supervisor, your words at work can carry legal consequences. Jennifer Rubin, a partner with the Mintz Levin law firm in San Diego, told the Society for Human Resource Management that “employers need to remember that when a supervisor speaks in the workplace, for purposes of the anti-discrimination statutes, the supervisor may be deemed to be speaking for the company.”

The online world can be even more dangerous, since you can’t predict who might see, or share, or misconstrue your words. You might think your private opinions are safe on Facebook, but it’s easy to trace who you work for with a quick Google search. The fact that you weren’t at work when you typed an angry reply may not save your job. Again, your position of responsibility changes everything. Your shares, retweets, and even your “likes” may be scrutinized as well, so think before you link.

There is no escaping the fact that civility is in short supply today, and this can make your job more challenging. The best response is to follow the best practices for any manager:

  • Create an atmosphere of civility, fairness, open-mindedness, and collaboration.
  • Gently restrain your loudest employees, and help the quietest speak up (if they want to).
  • Redirect your team away from dysfunctional behavior.
  • Above all, model the good behavior you want to see in your team.

Mark Saltveit is the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly and Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution. He writes regularly about health and science for the Oregon Bioscience Association; his work has also appeared in Harvard Magazine and the Oregonian newspaper.

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