Small talk is an everyday part of work, but politics is emerging as a significant productivity drain. It is also a frequent source of conflict. Here are tips that might help.

It’s natural for employees to chat with colleagues about things that are happening in the news. We bring the events of home, family, and the latest headlines with us to work. We share snippets in cafeterias, commutes, break rooms and over cubicle walls.  Small talk is part of a normal work day.

Sometimes, things get a little animated or even heated. Think about competitive sports bouts or elections. Usually things bounce back after a few days.

But today, people are still very consumed by politics at work even though the election has long since passed. In a recent  survey in the Washington Post, workers said that since the election, their colleagues talk more about politics than work. They also report spending an average of two hours a day reading about politics, much of that on social media at work. Almost a third admit to being less productive since the election. Nearly half of those surveyed say they’ve witnessed an argument about politics at work.

It’s not a total surprise. The political climate is contentious and the workplace reflects real life concerns.

What’s an HR manager to do?

As a manager, you are responsible for workforce productivity.  You must also create a safe, respectful conflict-free zone for people to work. If you find that politics is disruptive in your workplace, we’ve gathered expert resources that might help.

Sandy Smith asks Are you finding yourself playing referee to political discussions in the workplace? in EHS Today. She interviews a workplace management consultant who offers six concrete tips for dealing with disruptive politics at work. Among her recommendations: Stay neutral. Challenge people to find common ground. Keep people busy and “Keep all eyes on the prize:  the new product, the new contract, the new client.”

In Harvard Business Review, David W. Ballard talks about the challenges of Navigating Political Talk at Work. Citing another study on post-election workplace disruption, he discusses strategies for both employers and employees to bridge the differences. These include focusing on common goals and shared values. He also offers this advice for employers:

“Having a clear policy that describes any limitations on political activities in the workplace and making sure employees are aware of the expectations is a good start, but political conversations are inevitably going to occur. The most effective approach is to promote a workplace culture that embraces respect and trust so that difficult conversations and disagreements (political or otherwise) can take place in a civil environment. A psychologically healthy workplace is good for employees and the organization even in the best of times, but it’s particularly critical during challenging and polarizing times.”

At SHRM, employment law attorneys Brian Pedrow and Christopher Cognato write about Managing Divisive Politics in the Workplace. They remind employers that a blanket ban on political conversation may be overbroad. In fact, some state laws prohibit messages that could be construed as influencing or controlling an employee’s political activity. But they offer this recommendation:

“Find ways to reaffirm a principle that should already serve as a foundation for your organization’s policies: The work environment should be a place of mutual respect where employees feel valued by their employer and peers (notwithstanding the National Labor Relations Board [NLRB] general counsel’s dislike of the use of the word “respectful”). Employees should also know that the organization expects that conversations and activities not related to work will not detract from what should be the primary focus—work. “

Tools and articles on conflict resolution that might be helpful

Other tools that can be helpful to managers are refresher training in conflict resolution – both for yourself and for your staff. (Members of our EAP have related trainings available for both managers and employees, These include Conflict and Anger Management, Peer Relationships, Emotional Intelligence at Work and Team Building)


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