Welcome to the Circus, HR

Mark Fogel employee experience, Engagement and Satisfaction, Free Speech, in the news, Mark Fogel, Office Politics 3 Comments

HR, welcome to the proverbial circus of politics in the coming year. HR and Talent folks will be hard pressed to  ignore the firestorm created by our politicians in our country the past few months. It hit a crescendo this past week as Presidential Impeachment proceedings  took center stage. We always have been dealing with politics, specifically legislation and to a lesser extent court decisions and regulatory agency activities.

But the coming year is different. Politics is now out of the proverbial closet.

Politics has become as polarizing as how we feel about our favorite sports team. We used to wear our favorite game day team colors to work – you know, the matching, top, tie or scarf with your college team on it. Now that has been replaced with your “true colors” of political affiliation and beliefs. Employees often dig in and are unwilling or able to see the other side and are now voicing their feelings and beliefs at work.

Recently I was consulting at a client when an employee walked in with a “F” the president t-shirt. The client’s HR executive was in the room and said nothing. In my day running HR functions, I would have marched the person down to my office, had a conversation and sent them home to change into something a little less controversial. However, this is a different time and place in America and as the saying goes “the best is yet to come”, or maybe the most challenging and controversial is yet to come.

For context lets take a moment to review some politics impacting HR. Depending on the majority party in office, the President and congress make congressional appointments to court judges at the federal level. The same occurs with state and local government with your local legislators. One only must go to the SHRM or HRCI body of knowledge to understand the impact of judicial decisions on public policy. Can you say, “Roe vs Wade”? How about LGBQ rights in some states?

Our legislators have created ACA and a host of laws  that we live in compliance with and are beholden to every day. Title Seven, ADEA, ADA, FMLA, FLSA, COBRA….the list goes on and on.

These are all givens that we sway back and forth with as we create, execute and train employees on policies and procedures in our respective organizations. When shifts occur, we shift with them. In the past the politics mattered, but we all found a way to get along.

But 2020 is going to potentially be very different. Employees and candidates are open about their politics today. We have already seen the backlash with SHRM’s CEO a year ago and that was only the tip of the iceberg. That was also our own HR community divided. Fortunately, it was in our own house and we were able to contain it. HR is now front and center to employees at all organizations. Your employees are not only talking politics, they are watching you to see how HR is going to model behavior.

What is a practitioner to do when members of leadership or even your C-Suite speak out publicly about anything political? The springtime of 2020 brings endorsement season for politicians. And folks with money (many of your leaders) give money to political parties and specific candidates. What do you do when the politics of your leaders become the headline at your water cooler?

It would be easy to just say you’re not getting involved. Good luck with that….

Can we be inclusive when we are personally positioned on one side of issues impacting our entire nation? I doubt it. And more importantly, we are charged with helping to shape “inclusive” environments in the workplace. How can we do that given the dynamics?

Normally I would lay out four or five steps we should take to address a pressing issue. With this one I have ideas that may just not fly in many organizations. One idea is to have your folks leave all politics at home. Make the office a “No politics” safe zone for all. Ask folks to abstain from wearing anything controversial, bringing any materials into the office, or talk about politics. The only problem with that is our First amendment freedom of speech concept would be severely compromised. Add to this a trip to the employee parking lot where bumper stickers, hats on windowsills and other paraphernalia abound.

And then there is the social media issue. Many employees are very outspoken on Facebook and other sites about there viewpoints. Good luck with that too.

HR should not have to play judge or referee on this, but I am afraid we are going to have to.

So, I am for once at a loss for words. I do know that we must try our best to create safe working environments, uphold policies, and model values and ethics. How we do that successfully is a work in progress at best and a question mark for most.

If you have thoughts in how HR should play this let us know….

Wishing you all a happy and healthy new year….I’ll be back next year to check in and see how your all doing!

Comments 3

  1. This is a VERY timely topic Mark, and you have some great insights here. However, I have two thoughts on your comment that establishing “No politics” office safe zones” might compromise our First Amendment Freedom of Speech concept:

    1. Our First Amendment Freedom of Speech (along with Freedom of Religion and Assembly) is about Americans being free from the government trying to abridge those rights. Employers are NOT the government and are therefore free to establish “No Politics” zones in the office as a condition of employment as they see fit.

    2. As Google has found out, allowing employees to have near unlimited ability to debate politics and any other sociaL topic in the workplace can backfire and make for an unruly and unproductive environment. FOT Grand Poobah Kris Dunn has written about this a lot, particularly how Google is struggling to put a lid on the tremendous amount of workplace time and energy that has been sucked up by the non-stop debate.

    I can’t tell you how often I hear people say that they are sick of how politics seems to be permeating just about every facet of modern life, and how tired they are of never being able to get away from it. The social media warriors — the classic 5% of the people making up 95% of the noise — are largely at fault for this, and the traditional standard that you needed to be careful discussing politics and religion at a party, work, or family gathering seems to have fallen by the wayside as a result.

    Having a “no politics” safe zone on the job won’t stop all the discussions, but it’s a good place to start. Like anything else having to do with managing people, talking to your staff about this issue is a good way to help get them to buy in or at least give them have a chance to express their opinion.

    If you do that, I think you’ll be surprised. I honestly believe that in a great many workplaces there are many people who want the company or organization to step up and set rules that allow everyone to have a civil workplace where they can get the job done at work … and then go debate politics at the bar when their work day ends. Not everyone may like it, but they may end up thanking you for it in the end.

    1. John,
      Thanks for weighing in…it is a tough discussion…my approach (and yours) may indeed be the way to go…but again as you point out AND KD did too with Google, the silent majority often gets drowned out by the “5%”.
      Rules or no Rules, 2020 is certain to be a “CIRCUS” of politics and HR needs to be ready!
      Have a great holiday and New Year.

  2. I agree with you both. Step up and ask that the conversation be had outside of work. Start at the top by advising leaders to do the same, and model that behavior personally. If you can, make your workplace Switzerland. 2020 is sure to be a whirlwind, but HR doing all we can to make our workplaces a safe haven for work rather than political debate is definitely the right answer.

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