Political Chatter and Work: An Ugly Combination

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The Supreme Court nomination hearings reignited and inflamed some of the harsh political discourse in the workplace (and everywhere else) seen during and immediately after the 2016 Presidential election. According to a Wall Street Journal poll, over 50% of employees reported that the hearings prompted political debate at work.

Given that much of the polarization breaks down over a political party, gender and even generational lines, employers need to be cautious in dealing with the potentially combustible combination of views and emotions in the workplace. This is particularly so because of the allegations of sexual assault, when combined with the continuing momentum of #MeToo, has resulted in a deeper gender divide on the issue of sexual harassment and the veracity of the accusers.

During the hearings, a Reuters poll concluded that 48.2% of men supported the nominee while 47.4% of women opposed him And while many of the same issues are implicated, it is important to remember, that unlike Anita Hill’s testimony in the Thomas Senate Judiciary Committee Hearings, these most recent allegations had nothing to do with workplace sexual harassment. Yet that distinction has been blurred to many. So while many men are expressing renewed concerns over vulnerability to false allegations of both sexual assault and sexual harassment, the emergence of the new #whyididntreport reflects the viewpoint of many women, the combination of which is creating additional tensions in the workplace.

In fact, during the hearings, Indeed published a survey concluding that at least 20% of employees want political talk at work to be prohibited. About a quarter of respondents said that political views are censored in their workplaces, 60% said by peers and 40% claim by the employer. Naturally, there are even differences about whose views are being stifled with 66% claiming that conservative views are shunned and 34% believing that liberal views are shut down at work. All this bickering has prompted our new movement, #stoptalkingandgetbacktowork. Rally location to be announced.

Keep in mind, employers can stop employees from engaging in political speech at work. Employees do not have First Amendment rights in the private sector workplace. But as WSJ observed, younger workers feel emboldened to demand that their employers reflect their view of the world. You may recall, last year, Google relied on its anti-discrimination policy to terminate an engineer that distributed an internal memo espousing his view that Google was intolerant of conservative views and describing his theories as to why women did not advance in the tech fields. The now unemployed engineer wrote that biological causes…may explain why we don’t see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. The writer, clearly determined to commit career and probably relationship suicide continued explaining that these biological differences lead to women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up and leading. He added that women are also held back by higher anxiety and lower stress tolerance. In terminating the employee for publically expressing his views, Google stated that the memo advanc[ed] harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace and as a result violated its code of conduct.

There are enough causes of stress and division at work without politics playing a part. An American Psychological Association study found that at least 26% of employees felt stressed out because of political discussions at work. Now may be a good time to follow our movement and encourage or insist that employees stay focused on the mission at work and leave the politics out.

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