HR Answers: Maintaining Workplace Civility in an Election Year

two businesswomen arguing in office corridor
By Cheryl Hyatt

4 minutes

Follow these three essential habits to avoid office conflict.

It’s an election year in the U.S. That means elevated levels of election coverage, civic engagement and—unfortunately—interpersonal conflict. Political rhetoric has reached a fever pitch and the campaign trails have blazed a path both divisive and intense. The 24-hour cable news networks have conditioned Americans to think that constantly talking politics is normal and that a combative tone is the standard tenor to adopt. While this might yield ratings for Rachel Maddow or Tucker Carlson, it can sour office relationships.

Office relationships exist on a sort of hybrid ground. Most employees spend 40-plus hours a week at work, meaning they will often spend as much or more time with their co-workers than their family. That fosters familiarity and can yield strong relationships. At the same time, they are not elective relationships. The old adage that you choose your friends but not your family is also true of your co-workers. Workplace relationships are, by nature, more formal. As a result, they must be handled with care. Political disagreements between family members have more context and more options for resolution. While a dinner table political shouting match among family might result in family members “hugging it out” or result in a feud, you don’t have the luxury of allowing members of your staff to not speak to each other.

Politics have become increasingly partisan, often to a toxic degree. One of the strengths of a thriving workplace is that it brings together a diverse staff. People of different ages, ethnicities, backgrounds and interests come together to help an organization achieve its goals. How can you foster an attitude of mutual respect in your credit union while avoiding tribalism?

While religion and politics are topics that are best avoided in an office setting, if it does come up, how can you keep the situation constructive instead of explosive? Here are three practices that can foster diplomacy and avoid conflict.

1. Listen

Political beliefs are closely held. Each of us has reasons why an issue resonates or why we identify with a political group. It’s natural to want to share your thoughts. But not only might sharing your political opinions not be helpful in a potentially tense conversation, it might not be appropriate in a workplace setting. Focus instead on genuinely and graciously listening to the other person. Understanding others’ perspectives is a key skill of empathy and trust. Can you put yourself in the other person’s shoes? Can you understand why they think the way they do? Learning to truly hear another person is important not only for harmonious conversations, it’s key for ongoing relationships.

2. Focus on Common Ground

Listening empathetically leads naturally to focusing on shared values. You may completely disagree with the strategy someone advocates for addressing a problem, such as poverty, but you can heartily echo their desire to alleviate the problem. Choose to key in on the motives and methods you agree with. Choosing to engage with the things you and your co-workers share can accomplish two key objectives: First, it can keep the conversation positive and cordial; second, it can help move it to a conclusion so you can get back to more productive topics. You can focus on common ground without even tipping your hand as to which side of an issue you identify with. Keeping things neutral is always a wise choice in a workplace. Just because the person you are talking with has chosen to reveal their political positions doesn’t mean that you need to. Remembering that you have choices in every exchange will equip you to make positive decisions.

3. Pivot

Just as vital as knowing how to engage civilly with a co-worker is knowing when to step away from a topic. There are times when a conversation will not be productive. Don’t be afraid to say something positive but direct, such as “I appreciate how passionate you are about this topic, but I try not to discuss politics at work. I do enjoy commiserating on the latest baseball loss. Did you see the Pirates game last night?” A successful redirect hits three marks. First, it’s positive, not accusatory. The goal is not to make the other person defensive or offended, but to get the conversation back onto sure footing. Second, it owns your part of the interaction. You are not saying they are bad for bringing up politics, just that you don’t feel comfortable discussing them in the office. Finally, it offers a new direction for the conversation. Arm yourself with neutral topics such as hobbies, sports or interesting local news.

With patience and persistence, these three approaches can keep workplace interactions on all topics, including politics, cordial and constructive. Just as negative attitudes can be contagious, so too can positive interactions. Set a respectful tone, and your expample can have a far-reaching impact into workplace dynamics and productivity.

With over 20 years of executive-search consulting experience, Cheryl Hyatt has been responsible for successfully recruiting senior-administrative professionals for educational and non-profit organizations. Before partnering with Dr. Fennell to form Hyatt-Fennell Executive Search, she was the president and owner of The Charitable Resources Group and provided not only executive search services but fundraising consulting expertise to the clients she served. Cheryl brings over 30 years of management and organizational leadership experience to her role with clients. Her breadth of experience, knowledge, and contacts makes her sought after professionally in her field. Ms. Hyatt has written articles and presented to various non-profit groups. She sits on various local non-profit boards offering a variety of expertise to each organization.

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