This was first published as the “Ask HR” column in USA TODAY.
Those who know me understand that I can act as a provocateur in conversations. I question. I disagree. I offer a counter-point.
While I sometimes play the contrarian, it’s always done with respect because I value these rich conversations. I learn from them, and I believe my colleagues and friends do too.
What I don’t value are one-sided tirades, hate-filled speech and attacks on others simply because they share different points of view.
That’s why I am encouraging HR to support civility in the workplace every day — and particularly tomorrow, when the results of the midterm elections might be met with gloating, anger, frustration or worse, no matter what side wins.
We saw during the last presidential election that politics created divisions in the workplace, making for some uncomfortable and even violent incidents. Incivility hurts work relationships, morale, employee retention and business productivity.
While I had hoped we learned from that experience, HR leaders have come to understand it wasn’t just the presidential election that caused rifts to erupt.
Even today, workers continue to be affected personally and daily by the current political climate. From the employee who is so unsettled about the day’s political news that she gets upset at work to the employee who refuses to work with a colleague because he is a member of another political party, the workplace is being negatively impacted and, often, others stand by unsure of what to do.
Workplace incivility is unacceptable.
When employers ask what can be done to create a civil workplace in this political climate, I tell them that it’s important to be proactive. Leaders must make inclusion and respect for diversity of thought a central element of their organizational values, and they also must set expectations for workplace behavior and model the behavior they want to see. This is not the time for “Do as I say, not as I do.”
On days like tomorrow, workplace leaders must be vigilant about reinforcing their values and expectations. They should monitor discussions and interactions for politically charged exchanges to ensure they do not lead to bullying or threatening behaviors between employees or become a significant burden on business operations.
If an interaction between workers becomes overly assertive or even aggressive, leaders must take action to stop it. Incivility, which can lead to violence, must be met with zero tolerance.
But a workplace cannot be a sterile environment where creativity, healthy civil discourse and engaging conversations can’t occur. In fact, employers should not have policies that prohibit all political discussions.
Instead, we need to treat political divisions the same as we do any diversity issue — by building workplace cultures where interactions can take place in a climate of tolerance, acceptance and civility.
Part of this is helping employees understand that co-workers can — and do — have other viewpoints that are just as valid as their own. As my mother says, you can disagree without being disagreeable.
As we look to come together, let’s aspire to make the workplace a safe place for civil discourse. In this, HR and the workplace can inspire and influence broader society.
Tomorrow is a day to emphasize the common purpose we find in our work, whether that’s pride in a product, relationships with clients or service to a community.
Whether your candidate wins or loses, I know that the workplace — with a focus on commonly shared goals, values and beliefs that benefit everyone — can support healthy discussions about politics.
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