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Embracing political discourse in the workplace

Sahra Kaboli-Nejad

People Scientist, Culture Amp

It's impossible to ignore that America is in the depths of a campaign season for one of the most highly-anticipated presidential elections in our lifetimes.

Historically, it seemed simple to draw a line – when you enter the office, you don't talk about politics. However, employees and employers are increasingly and openly participating in social justice movements and sharing their opinions on social media. Combined with a virtual working environment, the lines between personal and professional life have blurred. What was once taboo is now accepted as a new normal, like seeing our coworker's children during a meeting or our partners walking through the background. As an organization, we need to make a conscious decision about whether conversations around politics are also becoming normalized. We need to focus on learning how to deal with politics at work. 

We talk about the value of employees bringing their "whole self" to work to drive feelings of belonging and wellbeing, but you need to ask yourself if that includes politics too. Political decisions have real-life consequences that impact people's feelings of safety, security, and wellbeing. If we genuinely want people to bring their "whole self" to work, we have to accept that they will also share the struggles they are dealing with outside of the office. According to the 2019 Chapman University's Survey of American Fears, 47.5% of Americans were "afraid" or "very afraid" of the outcome of the 2020 election. With such a large group of people experiencing heightened fear and stress, do we want to maintain a strict policy of "leaving it at the [virtual] door," or is there a middle ground?

The do's and don't's of talking politics at work

The truth is, you can no longer separate politics from the workplace, and research findings support this. According to SHRM, 26% of Americans regularly admit to talking about politics in the workplace, and 42% of employees have had a "political disagreement" at work. Why can we no longer separate political life from work life?

First, politics includes more than who you or your employees are voting for in an upcoming election. Political conversations and stances in the workplace are dynamic and constantly evolving. Consider where the organization stands on various policies and which ones you choose to support. For example, are you supporting any environmental laws? Do you offer gender affirmation services as a part of your benefits packages? Do you have a stance on how different tax laws impact your business? Most recently, did you make a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement? Who you donate to and the political causes you publicly support signals what the organization values and cares about. The organization is actively making political decisions, whether directly or indirectly, so it can seem hypocritical if you tell employees not to discuss politics or policies that are important to them.  

Secondly, and this is especially true for folks in a remote working environment, you cannot truly ban political conversations at work because the line between work life and personal life no longer exists. In other words, you cannot control how policies and politics will impact the lives of your employees and, by extension, their working lives. Nor would you want to. Consider the additional dynamics at play if the organization is actively engaging in politically charged activities, such as lobbying or making donations to specific causes or candidates. Federal and state laws protect certain types of speech in the workplace, including discussions around unionization and workplace conditions. As mentioned above, politics transcend election talk, so an outright ban may actually put the organization at risk.

From Brexit to the US elections, politics are more polarizing as we're seeing across the world than ever. Decisions are being made about the livelihood, safety, and health of our employees, their family, and their friends (to name a few). While this has always been true, now that the lines of work and home life are so blurred, it's increasingly difficult to separate the two – one is constantly impacting the other (in both directions). As organizations, we need to be prepared for the impact that political events like the US election have on our employees. This includes not just during the election but also in the weeks leading up to it and the days and weeks that follow. People will feel the effects long after a law is passed or an election is over. But while you cannot always prepare for unforeseen events and their impacts on the organizations (e.g., COVID-19), you can prepare for things like elections and policy decisions. 

What about collecting feedback? 

Aside from creating an environment where your employees can process a political outcome, you may be wondering what else you can do to let your employees know you support them and their mental health during times of potential increased stress. We are often asked questions such as, "Should we ask questions around political beliefs and outcomes in our next Engagement or pulse survey?" 

Similar to our advice around surveying on anti-racism and Black Lives Matter, the short answer is no. You should not launch a survey to understand where people land on the political spectrum, whether or not they support specific legislation, or how they feel about the outcome of a political event because you risk further polarizing your employees. For example, if you ask employees whether or not they support a specific candidate, are you going to take action on that feedback? If most folks support Candidate A, will the organization take a public stance in support of that candidate? You should consider how such a survey would impact the working experience of the rest of your employees. 

Customers often also ask why we don't include political affiliation as a demographic recommendation in our surveys. We strongly advise against asking about political affiliation and purposely don't include it in our templates because it is rarely actionable information. Don't forget – the demographic information that you ask employees to self-report implies that you will take action if unfavorable or inequitable results exist. More often than not, you cannot take action based on political affiliation, nor would you want to take action based on political ideology.

Things to consider when choosing to express support [or lack thereof] of a political decision 

If you are weighing your options on speaking out on a political situation as an organization, you'll want to consider the following:

Do you need employee feedback to decide what you are [not] going to support?

A great example here is choosing to be B-Corp certified, which shows that an organization is choosing to meet high standards of social and environmental responsibility, public transparency, and balancing profit and purpose. If this is something that is aligned with organizational strategy and values, do you need to ask employees about their support? Are you willing to forgo certification if you have a subset of employees who say they don't support it? In other words, avoid asking for opinions on political causes, candidates, or policies if your decision to support (or express a lack of support) is already solidified. 

Generally, asking employees for feedback regarding a political decision is not advised. Support (or lack of) for political decisions should be made in ways that are aligned with the organization's values. Asking for feedback on topics that may substantially impact your employees' health, safety, and livelihood can risk further marginalization of historically marginalized groups. Consider how you would use employee results to determine support of a specific piece of legislation. While most employees may support legislation, a small but significant subset of employees may experience major impacts if the bill were passed. Consider the implications on feelings of belonging at the organization if you put their wellbeing up to a popular vote. 

You are signing a [psychological] contract

Remember, by asking your employees their feedback on anything, you sign a psychological contract that you might do something with their feedback, regardless of whether it aligns with your own beliefs. Employees will lose trust in the feedback process if they feel that it is merely a sham or doesn't induce any sort of action. 

You may risk polarization 

You need to consider the potential adverse effects of the decision [to support or not support] you are making. You may further polarize your workforce if you, for example, endorse a candidate for political office, choose to work with specific organizations, or support a piece of legislation that goes against someone's views. Also, remember that you may risk further marginalization of groups if you make a statement of support for a policy or candidate that may have detrimental impacts on the safety and security subsets of the organization. These types of decisions will have a strong impact on your current and future workforce, which brings me to my third point. 

Transcending your workforce

These types of decisions will transcend your current workforce. Consider the effects that public decisions will have on the organization's brand. Employees keep track of decisions and policies made at their companies and share them with their networks –especially when decisions directly oppose their personal views and opinions. Consider the fallout you've seen and heard across social networks, the news, and in 1-on-1 conversations about organizations who chose to support certain legislation, worked with political organizations, or endorsed a particular candidate. Companies can fall from grace quickly, as our employees are not afraid to share information publicly. A blow to the organization's reputation doesn't recover easily, which is why you should weigh potential pros and cons as you're making a decision. 

Considerations if you already had an employee survey planned

We understand that there is no perfect time to survey and often encourage organizations to maintain the collection of employee feedback, even through difficult or ambiguous times such as the pandemic. Here are a few things to consider: 

  • Participation Rates. If your survey is open during an election or other major political event, you may have lower participation rates. For example, data from Culture Amp customers indicated that survey participation at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was substantially lower than we traditionally expected. At the beginning of March, when employees may have abruptly been moved to working from home, experiencing increased stress and ambiguity, and struggling to maintain routines, survey participation dropped to 66%. By the end of March, average participation increased up to 77%. To remedy the potential impacts of a major event on the representativeness of your data, you can consider waiting a week to launch your survey or leave your survey open for an additional week so that employees have the opportunity to participate when they're able. 
  • Added sections. You may also want to create an additional section to your survey focused on inclusion, belonging, and/or respect to understand if the political climate impacts the organization's culture. Organizations may experience a breakdown of culture due to the outcomes of a major election or political decision, especially if it directly impacts specific subsets of people at the organization, such as underrepresented groups. 
  • Delaying. Employee survey results could shift if someone participated before or after a major political decision, especially if the organization played a role. We recommend waiting before launching sensitive surveys, such as inclusion, as there could be more polarization in the days and weeks before and after a major event. 

How to support employees after a major political situation 

Inevitably, there will be a group of folks in the organization who are upset, frustrated, or scared based on a political outcome. Regardless of how someone feels, everyone will need time to process the results. For employees whose lives or safety are endangered by the outcomes of a political process, the time to recover might be even more significant. Like other major and sometimes life-changing events, you can help employees manage their mental health and take the necessary time to understand their feelings. Encourage folks to take time off or offer a mental health day to employees who need a chance to recharge, process, and experience the emotions associated with the outcome. 

However, offering time to process is meaningless if we don't create an environment and culture for employees to feel comfortable having an emotional response and needing time to process. Ensure that you are [over-] communicating that it is not unprofessional or immature to need time to care for yourself, your family, or your community. Our culture also informs us how "winners" experience the workplace too. For example, if my candidate is elected or a bill is passed that is meaningful to me, the culture of my organization will dictate how I bring myself to work. How do I show empathy toward the grieving and processing of other employees? 

Keeping politics out of the workplace is a thing of the past. As our personal and professional lives continue to intersect, it's essential to create an environment where employees are comfortable reacting to potentially unfavorable political news. Consider how your employees will be impacted in the weeks leading up to and after such events, and make sure you utilize employee feedback in the right way.

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