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  • 7 March 2022
  • 2 years

Handling Political Conflict at Work

Hal Morgan

In times of political conflict within a country, or political or armed conflict between countries, strong emotions and opinions can lead to personal conflict at work. Some conflicts and disagreements at work can be productive; they’re a sign that multiple views are being heard in order to reach considered decisions. Other conflicts between colleagues at work can create a toxic work environment and cross the line into harassment and bullying. Political conflicts at work are particularly likely to create division rather than connection and understanding among colleagues.

How to Handle Political Conflict at Work as an Employee

Follow your employer’s policies on political expression and activity at work:

  • Don’t engage in political discussions at work unless you’re able to have civil, respectful conversations:
    • Don’t start or enter into a political discussion if you’re not open to hearing different views and willing to reconsider your own positions.
    • The goal on both sides should be to understand and learn from colleagues – not to antagonise them or change their views.
  • If the emotional intensity of a political discussion becomes too hot and people are getting upset, shut the conversation down or suggest you continue when tempers have cooled.
  • Never assume that another person has political views that are similar to or different from yours because of outward appearances, such as their nationality, ethnicity, age, gender or other characteristics.
  • Don’t blame a colleague for the actions of a government or a political leader. Treat all of your colleagues at work with respect and civility.
  • Be aware of the effect your conversations might have on people who are within earshot, even if they’re not engaged in the discussion. Might they be offended or feel demeaned by what you or your colleagues are saying?
  • If you’re offended, hurt or disturbed by political conversations at work, or if conversations like these are interfering with your work performance, go to your manager or HR representative for help.

How to Handle Political Conflict at Work as a Manager

First, adhere to your employer’s policies, and follow the guidance of your HR department. Beyond that, here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Apply the rules consistently. If you prevent the expression of views from one side of the political spectrum, apply the same restraint to the expression of views from different sides.
  • Set an example. Model respect and civility. Avoid talking politics with your subordinates. As a manager, you are in a position of power. Your opinions might be interpreted as pressure to agree or as the position favoured by your employer. When appropriate and helpful, show how to have a conversation with open-minded listening, self-reflection and a desire to understand another person’s point of view. Don’t make jokes about controversial topics.
  • Monitor political discussions, and step in before emotions overheat. Calm, thoughtful and mutually respectful discussions on any topic aren’t generally a problem at work, as long as they don’t cut into productive work time. Angry, emotional and disrespectful discussions and one-sided diatribes are a problem. They can cause lasting damage to work relationships and team productivity. Step in before discussions escalate to this level of hostility.
  • Watch for talk or behavior that crosses the line into harassment or bullying. This can include an employee forcing a political discussion on a colleague who would prefer not to engage. It might be an employee continuing a conversation beyond the point where it’s welcomed. It certainly includes hostile and demeaning comments. Intervene with firm warnings or disciplinary action as needed. Follow up quickly on complaints of harassment or bullying from your employees. Work with your HR representative to understand your role in handling these situations.
  • Have one-on-one conversations with your employees. Show that you care about them as individuals. Ask them about their reactions to political differences on the team. Coach them on how to make difficult conversations more productive and how to discourage unwanted conversations. Respond promptly to any complaints of intimidation, bullying or harassment.
  • Manage performance issues. If political discussions at work cut into work time or diminish work output, manage the problem as a performance issue. Your employees are paid to do a job, satisfy customer needs and meet performance targets. If an individual’s political beliefs and behavior are interfering with their work output, you need to deal with it as a performance issue. Even when an individual is performing well, if their interactions with others are hurting morale and reducing work output, they are causing a performance problem that you need to address.
  • Seek help. When you’re unsure how to handle political tension and conflict on your team, ask for suggestions from other managers, HR or your employee support program. If you’re concerned about harassment or bullying on your team, ask for guidance from HR right away.

Morgan, H. (Revised 2022, 7 March). Handling political conflict at work (Z. Meeker & B. Schuette, Eds.). London: Workplace Options.

Disclaimer: This document is intended for general information only. It does not provide the reader with specific direction, advice or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.

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