It has been less than a month into the new administration. Already organizations are facing the costs of distracted employees, the expense of changing rules, and uncertainty about what is coming next. If the Super Bowl costs US companies a billion dollars in lost productivity, imagine what the tab is for politics.
Trying to keep work and politics separate is about as easy as balancing work and life. There’s a lot going on and it won’t calm down for awhile. The current issues touch people deeply.
Political issues are affecting organizations as companies scramble to to makes sense of what is happening, both internally and for their customers. Shifts in immigration, trade, and foreign policy could change how companies work and whether they have workers. There are also potential changes to health care, taxation, and employment laws that create further concern and confusion.
Employees are pressuring their organizations to take sides publicly. Some employees have quit because of the position the organization took. And candidates are deciding whether to interview there based on which side the company supports.
Shopping has also become political with each side picking companies and organizations it either supports or boycotts.
The flurry of executive orders, protests, and challenges to the orders has created tremendous uncertainty and kept the divisiveness of the election alive as people become more entrenched in their views of what is happening.
We are anxious and want certainty. We want to know what to believe and what to do. We can’t agree on almost anything right now.
When faced with politics and work, organizations often approach the tension by issuing policies demanding that people refrain from political discourse and get back to work. It would be lovely if we could all just relax, get off Facebook, and get stuff done. But it’s not going to happen any time soon. Things are moving too fast and there is a lot at stake for everyone.So let’s start with the fact that we are all anxious, distracted, and scared about what might or might not happen. We are human. This is a perfectly normal response to an abnormal situation. This is not business as usual. We have to begin with where we are, not where we want to be or think we should be.
In this series, I give suggestions to Organizations, HR, and Everybody on how to manage the anxiety, uncertainty, and inevitable disagreements. My take is based on 30 years of experience as an employment lawyer and over 50 years experience as a human. Individual results may vary.
Organization Survival Guide
The key for organizations dealing with politics and rapid change is to get clear on priorities, understand legal issues, and have compassion for your distracted and distraught employees while still maintaining sensible boundaries about conduct.
Develop Clear Priorities. Companies generally want to be productive and make money. That’s why they exist (well that, and to limit liability when things go sideways). Their customers who buy goods and services fall across the entire political spectrum. So most companies try to be politically neutral in order not to offend anyone holding a checkbook.
Yet, there may be certain issues that have a significant impact on the company’s ability to do business, or to hire and retain the workforce it needs. Some companies may decide to take a political stand because they either have to, or feel strongly that they should. For example, many tech companies opposed the recent immigration order, while others supported it. Retail and consumer brands are also responding to political pressures from customers. And many of this year’s Super Bowl ads, which were in production long before the election, had political messaging on immigration and inclusion.
Organizations should think through taking political stances carefully. There are strong arguments for taking a stance as well as important reasons not to. Consider how any decision will affect business strategy, your employees, your brand, and your customers. Ask whether it is the right thing to do. Get help from experts in law, communications, and how best to achieve the result you want.
Mostly, understand that there is no way to please everyone, ever, and especially, right now.
Understand Legal Issues. Multiple employment laws affect how companies handle politics at work. While most employers can restrict political speech and activity at work, many states protect political affiliation under EEO law. This means that employees cannot be fired or retaliated against because of their political party or affiliations, off-duty political conduct, or expression of political views (including on personal social media accounts). Each state’s laws are different. Applying them can be complex.
Current political issues involve opinions about religion, national origin, race, and gender, which means that the line between lawful discipline and unlawful discrimination can be hard to figure out. So before issuing a policy or disciplining someone over conduct that could be construed as discrimination, make sure to evaluate the issues carefully with Legal.
Have Compassion. Organizations need people to get the work done. So care and kindness toward those people is important. Expect absences and for things to take longer. Stress causes illness. People will have more outside issues to deal with. Everyone is distracted. As much as possible, let employees figure out how to manage their time and their work. Follow general policies on absences and paid time off, but also be understanding. Cracking the whip and demanding compliance will just cause more distress and make things worse. Some kindness will go a long way to help people settle down and focus on work.
If, after a reasonable time, flexibility is not working, then find out what is going on before coming up with new policies or solutions. This does not involve sending out pulse surveys about happiness. It involves curiosity, compassion, and actual conversations with people about their difficulties and challenges. Then figure out what the company can actually do something about. Distraction and absences are a symptom of bigger issues; they are not simply the problem.
That said, harassment or discrimination of any kind is damaging to the people having to deal with it and can create expensive problems for the organization. So act promptly to stop all harassment and bullying, even if it means terminating people.
These, days, politics is a legal, social, and economic minefield. It’s important for organizations to be clear about their stance, watch for legal issues, and accept that they will be dealing with change and a stressed workforce for awhile.
Next, we’ll look at how HR can manage politics and work.
Can You Be Fired for Your Political Beliefs or Activities? Maybe. by Donna Ballman, Huffington Post.
Is There Free Speech at Work? My post on political speech at work.
Read the entire series:
- Politics & Work 1: Organization Survival Guide
- Politics & Work 2: HR Survival Guide
- Politics & Work 3: Individual Survival Guide