Leaders Need These 8 Guardrails for Dealing With Workplace Political Discussions

'Too old'? 'Too religious'? 'Too gay'? These discussions are absolute no-nos.

learn more about Jonathan Segal

By Jonathan Segal


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

For years, we have witnessed a stark partisan divide. Some families have rules: no politics at dinner. For employers, it is neither practical nor desirable to prohibit all conversations in the workplace. Indeed, to do so is legally dangerous.

Political conversations that relate to terms and conditions of employment may be protected. And you can easily see how many political issues have workplace implications, from the gender pay gap, LGBT rights and religious liberty, to Obamacare, paid leave, unions and immigration. You get the point.

Related: What Obama's Order Banning Gay Discrimination Means for Businesses

Still, the political divide can create workplace divides that are unhealthy. The controversies Donald Trump alone has introduced raise the stakes even higher. So, here are eight guardrails you as a leader should observe, to minimize the risk that the inevitable will turn into the incendiary:

1. Remember your role.

If you are a leader, you don't forfeit your rights to have political views. Just be thoughtful about how you express them. You don't want to suggest that those who disagree with you are idiots. Yes, politics is a diversity issue, and we cannot exclude from the talent pool those with divergent political views.

2. Know your audience.

Some people take very personally those who have different political views. Unfortunately, in my view, many in both political parties demonize the opposition, so they set a bad role model for the rest of us.

So make sure, before you talk politics, there is a good working relationship. I enjoy good political discourse and that includes respectful disagreement, but only with those with whom I have a strong underlying relationship.

3. Focus on the positive.

Yes, you read that right. It's safer to talk about whom you support than to talk about whom you loathe. Stated otherwise, it is one thing to say support A. It is another to bash B.

Related: Tim Cook Is Wrong: You Really Can't Fire Someone For Being Gay

4. Think public versus private.

With a close colleague, a one-on-one dialogue (not diatribe) may be fine. But I would stay away from the hardcore political in group meetings or leadership communications.

5. Listen.

I don't mean to sound condescending, but you should listen to those with different views. You may learn a lot about them in a way that helps you work better with them.

At the risk of delving into political waters, someone who is a strong libertarian may not like "big employer" any more than he or she likes "big brother." That does not mean you should abdicate your management rights. But it may inform how you exercise your influence with the employee.

6. Be careful of EEO.

The candidates differ in terms of their age, ethnicity, gender, race and religion (in alpha order), among other factors. Comments that focus on what are "protected factors" under the employment laws are deeply problematic. "Too old." "Too religious." You get the point. Don't go there.

7. Respond proactively if you become aware of potential problems.

I confess that I enjoy watching debates. And, I can appreciate "knock-out" punches regardless of whether I like the person throwing one.

In a workplace, there's no room for knock-out punches. So if you see temperatures rising, intervene. Consider "While we may have very different political views, we have at least one thing in common -- we want X. [X is your mission, a specific project, etc.] So, let's focus on that."

If comments reasonably could be seen as biased, you must respond. When you are a leader, there is no such thing as a passive bystander where bias is concerned.

So, if there is anything in the criticism of a candidate relating to the person's age, ethnicity, etc., make it clear: not okay -- because it's not.

8. Stay away from discussions of genitals.

There should be no insinuations in the workplace about the size of a candidate's organ and no responses to the insinuations. I think we can reach bi-partisan agreement that this issue of huge national importance is not appropriate in the workplace!

Related: When Company Culture Becomes Discrimination

Enough. Now, everyone back to work.

Jonathan Segal

Partner in Employment Practice Group of Duane Morris

Jonathan A. Segal is a partner in the employment practice group of Duane Morris LLP in Philadelphia and principal at the Duane Morris Institute, an educational organization.

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