No matter how much or how little people normally talk about politics, during an election year the political chatter always seems to increase. Not even the workplace can escape it. With political news coverage happening around the clock, the 2016 presidential election is a topic of conversation around many water coolers.

According to a recent CareerBuilder survey, 30 percent of employers and 17 percent of employees who responded said they have argued with a co-worker over a particular candidate during this presidential election.

The confrontations that stem from political conflict between employees can lead to an HR nightmare. But while employers can’t tell employees what they may or may not discuss at work (unless it becomes disruptive), they can take certain steps to minimize potential political conflict due to the presidential election.

Here are five ways you can manage conflict at work due to politics:

  1. Foster a culture of tolerance. In many cases, the way employees behave and interact with each other stems directly from the way they feel they can behave and interact in their workplace. From the very moment they step into the office, employees know how they’re expected to act, what goes and what doesn’t go. Establishing a good company culture—one that encourages civil dialogue and tolerance—is the first step to handling potential workplace conflict. When employers treat employees with respect, they’re more likely to treat their peers with respect as well.
  2. Stay out of it (for the most part). On par with treating employees with respect is allowing them to express themselves. Employers who limit what their employees can or cannot discuss at work can be very damaging to morale and productivity. The CareerBuilder survey also found that half of workers and even more employers (59 percent) believe the workplace has become too politically correct, and one-third of employees said they were afraid to voice their opinions at work because they may not be considered politically correct. So long as they are kept civil, they don’t cause disruptions at work, and none of your employees feel threatened or harassed by them, political discussions are something for employers to stay out of. If they take a turn for the worse, though, see bullet number 5.
  3. Encourage employees to walk away. During a presidential election year, even a conversation about what was on television the night before is likely to turn to politics. It’s normal for some political talk to enter the workplace and, as long as it’s kept civil and respectful, it can actually be an eye-opening, idea-sharing experience.
    However, there may be a time when an employee takes things too far and won’t stop talking about his or her political views, gets worked up, or becomes hostile. Encourage all employees to politely walk away from any conversation that makes them feel uncomfortable. Remind them that a simple “Sorry, I have to get back to my desk” or “I have a conference call right now” can be a good way to end a conversation they no longer want to be a part of.
    Also encourage employees to directly state that they do not wish to discuss politics any more if a co-worker continues to bring up sensitive political subjects. If the co-worker persists, and his or her approach is hostile or disrespectful, remind employees that they should bring the matter to their HR manager right away.
  4. Remind employees of your policies. To piggyback on that last sentence, every employee should be reminded of your workplace policies regarding harassment. It is unacceptable for an employee to use political discourse as a way to harass others. You should make it clear that your company has a zero tolerance policy towards any form of harassment, including one that stems from political discussions.
    Consider implementing a refresher training course about harassment and distributing your company’s harassment policy to every employee. Make sure you have a harassment complaint system in place, and remind employees of what steps they should take if they feel that a co-worker or manager is harassing them.
  5. Step in when necessary. It’s true that during a presidential election year, employees may find themselves talking about the new recipe they tried one minute and about the candidates running for president the next. But if the conversation is disrespectful or distracting, it is perfectly acceptable for an employer to step in.
    Whether employees can’t stop talking about last night’s debate during the brainstorming session or a political discussion gets too heated, managers can and should remind employees that there is a right place and time to discuss politics and other sensitive subjects, and encourage them to keep it out of the workplace if it’s interfering with getting their work done.

Have you tried other ways to manage political confrontations at your workplace?


  • Linda P. says:

    I think that political discussions have occurred in every company and group of people this year. It’s up to the people who continue the dialogue to keep it civilized, but what I usually do when the conversation is about to turn into a conflict is to make a joke to change the subject, and generally it works. 

  • Neil Morrison says:

    What I saw as an effective approach to keeping the work environment friendly was a political discussion started by the management team during one of the weekly meetings. It was an open discussion to identify our opinion on the election year and we were encouraged to express our opinion. The discussion was aimed at identifying possible conflicts and communicating what is allowed and what is not, even before conflict arises.

  • Eleanor says:

    I had a recent situation where some employees were in conflict due to their political views and the situation was becoming more and more uncomfortable, not only for them but also for their colleagues. It reached a point where they had intense arguments in front of a client, so actions had to be taken. They discussed it with the management and also with the HR department, and both of them were moved to different projects in order to calm the situation.

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