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 have changed how companies work and whether they have workers. There are also 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.

photo of Heather Bussing on HRExaminer.com in black and white

Heather Bussing, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

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 a while.

Next, we’ll look at how HR can manage politics and work.

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Continued political turmoil is causing headaches at work. Let’s look at how HR can deal with all the political polarization in their companies.

Continued political turmoil is causing headaches at work. This is the second of three articles from Heather Bussing directed at organizations, HR, and individuals. Today’s article is the HR Survival Guide. Heather will conclude the series tomorrow with her individual survival guide. Now, let’s look at how HR can deal with the political polarization in their companies.

It started during the election and has just gotten worse. Politics creep into off-hand comments, cartoons circulate, everyone’s phone is open to facebook and twitter. The distraction and vitriol of the election were polarizing. People who used to laugh and joke together aren’t talking any more.

Since the inauguration, things have been moving so fast that if you are offline for a few hours, it’s hard to catch up. So people are spending more time consuming often conflicting news, then reading even more to figure out what is actually happening.

Distracted, exhausted employees trying to get work done is bad enough. But it’s the animosity and polarization that is giving HR headaches. Everyone has taken sides and is certain that everything wrong with anything is the other side’s fault.

We are starting to equate humans with their political views. This is a mistake. We should judge people by what they do or fail to do, not what they believe or whom they voted for.

HR’s job is to help manage the problems that political discussions can cause at work. The goal is to reduce drama, help everyone focus and get work done, and promptly deal with bullying, harassment, or discrimination.

Here are my suggestions for HR in dealing with politics and work.

Reframe.  Instead of issuing rules about not discussing politics or reminders that discrimination laws are still in effect, think of work as a place of refuge from the news and drama. Encourage people to take a break from politics while they are at work and have a little extra kindness and compassion for each other.

Use this as an opportunity to do training in communications, listening, conflict resolution, negotiation, and harassment. We could all use a refresher on these things. Now is especially good.

Respond to the Stress. It would be great if everyone was focused, driven, engaged, happy, and getting things done in record time. They aren’t. And it is not their fault. It is important to meet employees where they are. Whether they are distressed or delighted by current events, this is not business as usual.

Exercise, relaxation, and mindfulness all help people manage stress. Encourage people to get outside and walk or run over lunch instead of checking social media. Bring in a chair masseuse or have a daily drawing for spa gift certificates. Have mindfulness or meditation training and then set up a quiet room where people can come to sit and decompress. Ask employees for tips on how they manage stress and difficult conversations and publish them on the company intranet.

Telling people to stop freaking out does not work. Instead, acknowledge that your employees are having a hard time and encourage them to take care of themselves. Even if this costs the company some time and money, it will likely pay off in the long run by helping people get back to work and by preventing escalation of the distress.

Provide Outlets. Get a huge pile of postcards, some stamps, and the complete contact information for federal, state, and local elected officials. Give people an extra 15 minutes a day to call or send a postcard to the representative of their choice. Tell them they don’t get to argue about it with each other, but they are welcome to let their views be known to the people who are making the decisions.

Decline Drama.  It is inevitable that someone will say or do something offensive to someone else at work, away from work, and on social media. If the issue does not directly involve the company or some kind of illegal conduct, then listen politely and decline to get involved. If appropriate, encourage people to get help for depression and severe anxiety.

Respect Dissent.  If your company takes a political stand, know that there will be some employees who find that intolerable, no matter which side the company takes. Some will get frustrated and depressed; others may want to quit. It’s important for organizations to let all employees know that their contribution is valuable and that the company respects their beliefs. Encourage people to take their time to decide whether they want to stay, and let them know that you will give them time to make the transition to a new job if that is what they need to do.

Stop Hate Speech.  Harassment, bullying, and discrimination are not okay. If it is happening at work, come up with a plan for dealing with it promptly and effectively. Some people are feeling emboldened to make derogatory remarks to minorities, gay people, the disabled, and women. If there are extenuating circumstances, few days or a week of unpaid leave can be an effective deterrent to future problems. Otherwise, this should be grounds for immediate termination.  Remember, political affiliation is also a protected class in most states, so talk to your employment lawyer in devising your plan and whenever it’s necessary to discipline someone.

There is no magic formula for helping people cope with politics and focus on work right now. The best approach is to acknowledge the reality and help people through it. Handle problems on a case by case basis and be sure to take care of yourself in the process. Now, it’s time to look at your individual survival guide. 


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“At work, you have some control over what you are doing and get to do things you (hopefully) are good at and enjoy. Feeling competent and getting things done really helps when politics has people untethered and uncomfortable.” – Heather Bussing

The key for people dealing with politics and work is to manage stress and distractions. Work can be a calming place where you can reduce political stress. At work, you have some control over what you are doing and get to do things you (hopefully) are good at and enjoy. Feeling competent and getting things done really helps when politics has people untethered and uncomfortable.

This means don’t get into political debates, don’t judge people by their politics, and limit outside distractions while you are trying to get work done. This is difficult. I spent a couple days on twitter imagining the end of the world until I remembered that things did not go well for Chicken Little. A walk really helped.

Taking care of yourself is essential. Get sleep, eat healthy food, exercise, meditate. These are always the first things to go when I’m feeling anxious and stressed out. Caring for my body and mind is always a good place to start.

Here are my suggestions for how to deal with the current political climate and stay (somewhat) sane.

  1. Take care of yourself. Get offline. Go outside. Read a book. And definitely eat chocolate.
  2. Have mixed feelings. You can be outraged and happy, sad and silly, anxious and funny. Most of the time I have mixed feelings. I just try to be more aware of which ones get up front.
  3. Connect with other people and animals. Tell people you love them. Be extra kind. Give lots of hugs. Ask for one now.
  4. HALT. Do not make any decision or post to social media when you are hungry, angry, lonely, tired, after 10 pm or two drinks (whichever comes first).
  5. Refrain. If you must fix or do something right away, especially something over which you have little control, stop. It’s the anxiety and distress wanting a quick resolution. Breathe, give it a little while. You will feel better if you let yourself.
  6. Do not try to convince anyone of anything online or at work. Just don’t. Even if you know the facts and believe you are right. Instead, call your congressperson. Really, it is better to have friends and be happy than be right.
  7. Think critically. Check out information, find actual facts rather than opinion, look at multiple sources, find credible ones. Do not share articles unless you have actually read them and know what they say; headlines are often misleading.
  8. Move through outrage as quickly as you can. To stay in outrage gives it and “them” power over you. That level of adrenaline is also exhausting. Instead, use the energy for something that will help you or others. If you are not sure what that is, start with a walk.
  9. Decide what you can do and do it. Write and call your elected officials and let them know your views. Volunteer and get involved in activities you support. My friend Bob Corlett says: I do what I can do cheerfully, then I stop. You do not have to do everything. It is not all on you. What you can do cheerfully is enough.
  10. Your time and attention are limited, nonrenewable resources. Use them with care.


Further Reading

How to Get Through a Hard Day  I have some experience. This might help.

Us v. Them – “The moment you frame the problem as us v. them, you eliminate the solutions.”

Turns Out There’s Political Discrimination and Harassment Too Great post by Heather Kinzie at Performance I Create on protections for political affiliation.

Drama Management: Dealing with Problem Employees

You’re Doing It Wrong: The Cult of Nice

Employee Privacy: When It’s Personal

Employee Privacy: What Can Employers Monitor

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.



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