How companies are choosing to ignore or embrace political discussion
Political chitchat can increase workplace stress and lower productivity. But taking a stand can also pump up the troops.
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A Trump-free workplace is the goal at Office Resources.
During last year’s presidential election, the TV screens at the South Boston office furniture company were tuned to Fox News, and political animosity started to grow. When some employees complained that CNN should also be on for equal representation, principal Kevin Barbary got fed up and changed all the channels to ESPN. That settled the debate for a while — until NFL players started kneeling during the national anthem, inciting further political debate.
“In my two decades of business, this political cycle is the first one I remember that has caused such divisiveness,” Barbary says, noting that the seven TVs mounted on walls and in conference rooms were intended to create a relaxed atmosphere. “I think the only solution is to turn on HGTV.”
Following the 2016 election, politics has seeped into our daily lives like never before, with headlines and tweets bombarding even the most politically disengaged among us. More than half the respondents to a recent national Harris Poll say they’ve had political discussions at work. Forty percent of them say these conversations have caused stress and adversely affected their ability to work.
While managers can’t explicitly prohibit workers from discussing politics, they can ban harassment based on political views or ask workers not to promote particular parties on the job, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Nearly a quarter of companies have a written policy on political activities, according to the trade group, and 8 percent have an informal policy.
Tim Lynch of Psychsoftpc, a Quincy-based developer of computers for virtual reality gaming, said that while he would love to vent about “all the weird stuff that Trump is doing — all the racial tensions and building the wall,” he doesn’t want to alienate his customers. He has 10 employees and admits that it’s difficult at times not to share his political views. But, he says, “as the face of the company, I can’t let politics enter the business.”
For Lynch, staying silent is doubly hard. His cousin is US Representative Stephen Lynch, a South Boston Democrat. But even with his cousin, whom he sees frequently, mum’s the word. The two don’t talk politics to avoid potential disagreements.
Many companies are jumping into the fray, however, by taking a public stance on hot-button social issues such as immigration, minimum wage, and health care. A number of biotech and pharmaceutical CEOs have publicly expressed their concerns about the consequences of repealing DACA, for example, the program that grants temporary legal status to certain undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children.
Flexion CEO Mike Clayman recently joined 200 life-science industry leaders in signing an open letter to President Trump encouraging the administration to preserve the DACA program. “I felt I had a moral obligation to speak out on this issue which impacts so many of the most vulnerable in our society,” says Clayman.
Other companies have had internal forums, such as the advertising firm Hill Holliday, which began a dialogue series to address topics such as the “women in tech” Google memo and the shootings in Charlottesville, Virginia. As racial tensions grew across the country, employees at the professional services company Accenture were invited to a Building Bridges town hall broadcast for an open conversation about diversity.
Despite the controversy at Office Resources, no formal policy has been put in place to address political tensions, though Barbary says he has had to pull some employees aside and remind them that the workplace should be a place of mutual respect. Barbary keeps a television in his office to stay abreast of current events, turned to various stations, but tries to stay neutral out in the cubicles.
“I couldn’t care less whether someone’s Republican, Democrat, libertarian, or independent,” he says. “People always have different opinions — that’s what make our elections such a great process — but now emotions are really on edge.”
And after striking out with Fox News, and then ESPN — and not getting much enthusiasm for HGTV — Barbary’s search for an acceptable TV channel continues.