Talking politics in a digital workplace: 7 ways to keep it civil

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, right, speaks as Senator Kamala Harris, Democratic vice presidential nominee, left, listens during the U.S. vice presidential debate at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020.

Much like the recent presidential and vice presidential debates, talking about politics at work is bound to get heated, but appropriate workplace conduct doesn’t change just because employees are working remotely.

Employers that offer some simple guidelines or codes of conduct can be an easy strategy to keep one’s workplace civil, respectful and productive, a labor attorney says.

“Many people are not working in a traditional office right now because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean the rules of the road have changed,” says Mike Schmidt, labor and employment attorney with Cozen O’Connor, a Philadelphia-based law firm. “Digital devices may be blurring the line between private and professional conversations, but employees still need to be respectful of one another.”

Schmidt concedes that the current political climate is having a polarizing effect on Americans, and employers need to be ready to handle workplace conflict, should it arise. However, he doesn’t advise employers to discourage their workforce from discussing politics altogether — employers just need to set some ground rules.

“The election is highly charged because of who the candidates are and all the social issues that are hot right now,” Schmidt says. “You can have adult discussions about the issues without running afoul of workplace ‘don’ts’.”

Here’s a list of seven best practices Schmidt recommends for keeping political discussions in a virtual workplace productive and civil:

Use workplace conduct policies as a guide

“All discussions, whether in-person or virtual, should be in compliance with your company’s conduct standards,” Schmidt says. “With the election ongoing, now’s a good time to remind your employees that these policies apply to political discussions with colleagues — disagreements shouldn’t interfere with work.”

Treat emojis the same as speech

“Emojis are an accepted, understood form of speech these days,” Schmidt says. “A visual image like an emoji can be just inappropriate as uttering a statement. As we continue as a society to change and see new forms of technology that change how we communicate, any of them should be bound by the same rules as speech.”

Diffuse tensions

“Managers need to do the best they can to diffuse situations without taking sides,” he says. “It’s a good idea for managers to acknowledge these are highly charged topics, and to remind employees to be sensitive to other people’s beliefs and lived experiences. It’s the manager’s job to moderate conversations that are becoming too heated.”

Zero tolerance for bigotry

“Everyone has the right to feel safe and respected in their work environment; racist, homophobic, misogynistic and other forms of bigotry should not be tolerated,” he says. “Use your best judgment, but discipline can include termination.”

Look for teachable moments

“Again, use your best judgment, but sometimes employees will say or type ignorant things that upset their coworkers,” Schmidt says. “In cases where it was done unintentionally, without meaning to hurt someone else, use it as an opportunity to educate the workforce. Recent social injustices offer opportunities for people to listen and learn — there’s value in providing opportunities for people to learn about other life experiences.”

Avoid knee-jerk reactions

“A good rule of thumb is to abstain from knee-jerk reactions from tense situations,” he says. “Analyze what happened in each individual situation before making a decision about disciplinary actions. Managers should be mindful of not letting their own political views affect their decision-making.”

Check state and local laws

“Some states have lawful activities laws, which prohibit discriminating, terminating or disciplining employees for engaging in certain activities. Some of them are recreational or political in nature,” Schmidt says. “Consult with your attorney about this before making any decisions about disciplinary action.”