Too Much Politics Talk At Work? Focus On Culture, Not Edicts

You can't outlaw political discourse at work—that train has left the station. But you can engender a culture where employees care about and trust each other and where diversity and our shared humanity is celebrated.

When Basecamp’s CEO Jason Friedman commanded his employees to stop talking about “politics, advocacy or society at large” at work anymore, I thought: If it only it were that easy.

It’s tempting to want to draw the line, though, isn’t it? We all know politics has become more divisive, turning almost everything we do or say into a statement on values, beliefs, and even facts. For the sake of a little peace and quiet, I get why Friedman tried to declare his software company a no-politics safe zone.

But besides being counterproductive, it’s too late to do that. For one, our personal and work lives have blurred into the same thing. For another, the dominant events of the past few years, be it Covid-19, the recession, the Black Lives Matter movement or the 2020 elections, often are also work issues that have a real impact on HR policies, career trajectories, on-the-job safety and an organization’s culture.

Plus, corporate leaders themselves are speaking out more and more on social and political topics, knowing that their customers and other constituencies expect them to. And rather than object, most workers want their bosses to take these public stands, too. “Its not really an option to say nothing,” Mike Kaufmann, CEO of Cardinal Health, told a virtual roundtable. “If you don’t make comments, at least a certain amount of your employees think you don’t care or think you’re not listening.”

Case in point: At Basecamp, nearly a third of its employees, including some in senior staff, resigned in protest within days of their CEO’s cease-and desist order.

This doesn’t mean that senior management is powerless in curbing political discord. What business leaders can do is engender a culture where employees care about and trust each other, where conversations that may cause harm stop before they start, and where diversity and our shared humanity is celebrated. As businesses reopen, now is the time to ensure this culture is alive and well within your organization. This solution is not as quick or simple as posting an all-employees memo, but believe me, it’s much more effective.

Here are some guiding principles to consider:

Address the issues, but avoid the politics.

Politics in America today paints people with a binary brushstroke—you’re either on my side or you’re the enemy. That’s why so many conversations that start with politics end up going nowhere, dividing people along the way.

But the issues underneath the politics—racial inequity, for example, or Covid-19 vaccinations—are real, and if they affect work, business leaders can’t expect their employees not to talk about them.

That’s where Basecamp slipped up. The CEO’s decree actually arose from an internal conversation about a long-running Slack thread mocking “funny” customer names. As a recent piece on the blowup put it: “Employees say the founders’ memos unfairly depicted their workplace as being riven by partisan politics, when in fact the main source of the discussion had always been Basecamp itself.”

A smarter response would have had Basecamp leadership examine the issues employees had raised and then, if necessary, course-correct and recommit to the company’s core values.

Find common cause around your organization’s mission.

Though there’s no way to keep politics out of the workplace, you can set some boundaries and lower the temperature on hot-button topics by steering discussions away from politics and toward work-specific issues.

Reminding employees about their organization’s overarching purpose is the perfect place to start. At my organization, for instance, I’m always reinforcing our mission, which is to enable more manufacturers to thrive in northeast Ohio. Public policy and politics play important roles in accomplishing this. That’s not what I stress, however. Instead, I talk up the good we can do for our manufacturing clients, and their employees, customers, suppliers, vendors and the communities around them.

By focusing on your company’s mission and values, you can connect employees around shared goals that transcend politics. And who knows, you might even be able to accomplish what political debate can’t and engender a genuine discourse between people with different perspectives.

The workplace is not the place for evangelism.

I’m OK with people having strong opinions. I’m also OK with people who are so zealous that they can’t help but try to convert everyone else to their cause. But I’m not OK with true believers pushing their agendas on coworkers as if the office or breakroom was an extension of Facebook or Twitter.

Building the right culture at your organization means respecting every employee’s dignity above all else. A big part of that means ensuring that employees themselves acknowledge that, while they have every right to hold their views, they also have to respect that others might not have those views, and that work isn’t the right place to bring people over to your side.

Promoting a culture where this sort of evangelism can’t take root requires leaders to set the standard. The day after the election, for instance, I sent out an organization-wide communication that I made sure embodied the respect, clarity, and even-handedness that I expected from others.

If an employee is abiding by this overarching spirit, the fix is (again) not to make it about this person’s politics. Instead, managers should remind them of the company’s values, the respect they need to show their colleagues, the importance of maintaining harmony at the workplace, and their right to advocate for these issues outside of work.

Embrace diversity, inclusion and respect.

No matter the business, a diverse and inclusive culture—where a variety of perspectives can be shared and respected—is a huge strength. It’s what nourishes new ideas, better connections with the communities you serve, and a productive working environment. (It’s also why you can’t afford to have a third of your people up and quit overnight.)

Let this be your north star: If someone’s talk about politics at work is inhibiting a diverse and inclusive work culture, then you need to step in. If, on the other hand, that talk is endeavoring to create a more diverse and inclusive environment (e.g., by improving racial equity at the company), then you’re better off encouraging and appropriately facilitating the conversation.

Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all policy. If two of your employees have built sufficient trust in each other and aren’t doing others harm, refereeing their speech—even if its resolutely political—will only make things worse. Sometimes, though, employees do need a nudge in the right direction.

If you’ve got any qualms about doing this, remember that what’s most important is providing your employees a job that gives them fulfillment (including being heard and respected) and the means to provide for themselves and their families.

We, as leaders, can’t expect employees to think of their homes as their workplaces (or their workplaces as their homes) and somehow keep their personal and professional selves completely separate. We cannot ban politics, as Basecamp learned (too late). But we can nurture a work environment where we treat one another with respect, even when we disagree, while we work together toward a shared goal.

Dr. Ethan Karp is President and CEO of MAGNET, the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network. An expert in transforming companies and communities, he has helped hundreds of manufacturing companies grow through technology, innovation, and talent. Prior to joining MAGNET, Dr. Karp worked with Fortune 500 companies at McKinsey & Co.