Dealing with political differences at work

There’s no escaping it – politics is part of our daily lives. While we may try to avoid it in the workplace, sometimes it’s unavoidable, and general conversations about weather, sports, and pop culture can stray towards the political. When this happens, you want to be careful because tensions can quickly run high, and an argument breaks out.

But there are ways you can stop this from happening before it damages working relationships and productivity, if you can spot the signs before things turn nasty.

Alan Price, CEO at BrightHR, shares four top tips on how employers can prevent, deal with, and rectify any problems caused by political disagreements in the workplace:

  1. Establish rules of acceptable behaviour It sounds simple, but you’d be surprised how many employers miss this. Now more than ever, it’s important to be aware of what we are saying and the impact our words can have on others.

Your company probably already has set guidelines on what acceptable language in the workplace is. Make sure employees are aware of this, either by posting the guidance on the company intranet, signposting throughout the office, or sending an email reminder.

Of course, this may not work 100% of the time, as some comments may unintentionally stray towards the inappropriate. By keeping the rules of engagement fresh in your team’s mind, you can minimise this, whilst maintaining a healthy and productive working environment and atmosphere.

  1. Don’t ignore inappropriate comments There’s no two ways about it – sometimes inappropriate comments will be made. Modern politics can be divisive, so it’s almost inevitable that someone will make an unwarranted or derogatory comment about something that leaves another feeling belittled, humiliated, or even discriminated against.

It’s easy to ignore these comments and move on as if nothing has happened but this response has two major drawbacks. Firstly, it lets the person who made the comment think they can get away with it, and more importantly, it makes the victim feel isolated, undervalued, and ignored.

Instead, you should directly address the issue with the person who made the comment. Pull them aside for a one-on-one chat and let them know why their comments were unacceptable. If possible, encourage them to apologise to the other team member either formally or informally, which will help alleviate any tension and ensure you can maintain good working relationships within your team.

  1. Group sensitivity training Everyone likes to have their opinions heard and know that they can freely express themselves. Unfortunately, many do not feel this way about their workplace and often hide their thoughts and feelings for fear of being judged harshly.

Arranging weekly or regular group sessions, perhaps near to, or during lunchtime, when everyone can freely discuss and express their feelings without hostility can help. Rather than emphasising differences and potentially turning it into a shouting match, use these sessions to illustrate similarities.

At the end of the day, we are all human beings trying to do our best and achieve the same goals at work. Encouraging people to share their life experiences and the reasons behind their beliefs can open a healthy dialogue about cultural difference and personal experiences. If the team has a richer and deeper understanding of each other, it’s easier to manage when disagreements arise. The shared experience of talking about what makes us who we are brings us together and has a positive impact on group morale and productivity.

  1. Encourage disagreements This may sound counterintuitive, but it works! It may seem tempting to simply ban political discussion at work, but this is impractical. By establishing limits on what can and can’t be discussed, you are creating an atmosphere where people don’t feel they can openly express their thoughts and feelings.

Preventing political discussions can leave employees feeling invisible and isolated, which impacts their mental health and productivity.

It’s much better practice to issue informal reminders every now and then that employees must exercise judgement about what is acceptable and what is likely to cause offence. Regardless of what you do, you cannot prevent political conversations. But you can stop them from getting out of hand.


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