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Updated: Sep 30, 2022

How could you possibly think that?” or “Certainly, we all agree that…” are conversation-stoppers in many situations. National and local politics. Preferred news sources. Kneeling during the national anthem. Americans are in passionate disagreement on many issues and sometimes choose to share their opinions during the work day.

When employees’ political conversations get heated, what is an employer’s obligation? It is likely that the employees in your organization do not share the same political opinions or points of view. While discussions that build the workplace relationship are valuable, discussions that are disrespectful, bullying, or hurtful negatively impact company cultures. When employees’ political conversations get heated, what is an employer’s obligation?

The Challenge for Leaders

Last summer, the EEOC released a report with an extensive analysis for preventing workplace harassment. Although uncivil conversations do not automatically give rise to workplace

harassment claims — if unchecked — a poor company culture could allow such behavior to devolve and create exposure for employers. Their findings stated:

  • Workplace harassment remains a problem. Despite legislation and extensive public discussion on the issue, in 2015 almost one-third of the 90,000 claims filed included allegations of workplace harassment. As of this posting, the available 2017 numbers were similar.

  • Workplace harassment remains unreported. According to the EEOC’s report, 75% of claims weren’t reported for fear of retribution, not being believed, or retaliation.

An unresponsive company culture negatively impacts productivity, retention, business reputation, and, ultimately, profitability.

Leadership sets the workplace culture. Healthy business cultures react to incivility with a consistent and effective approach. Not surprisingly, leadership’s intentions must extend beyond a written policy.

A healthy business culture yields financial results. The costs of incivility extend beyond potential legal costs. An unresponsive company culture impacts productivity, retention, business reputation, and, ultimately, profitability.

Civility Strategies

While each company has a unique culture, successful organizations require that all employees are treated with respect and engage the following strategies:

  • Follow the Leader. The CEO and the leadership team set the organization’s civility tone. As leaders, treating employees and vendors with civility and respect are vital. Of course, the leadership team should demonstrate this conduct, and if they fall short, apologize and reassert their intention to create a civil workplace.

  • Incorporate Written Civility Codes. H.R. professionals would be wise to include written expectations of civility and respect in company policies.

  • Express Yourself, Please. Healthy cultures provide employees with the opportunity to express their discomfort during an uncomfortable exchange. Language such as “I am not comfortable with this conversation” or “Let’s change the subject” further civility in the workplace.

  • Bystander Support. Policy and practice should support colleagues and bystanders in speaking up for an individual who has been the victim of a disrespectful or personal attack.

  • Consistency is Key. Ensure that supervisors report and follow-through on any conduct that is disrespectful or doesn’t support the business culture. Even if it doesn’t rise to the level of a legal claim, it is in the supervisor’s best interest to address unproductive behavior before it gives rise to bigger issues. Moreover, these issues should be consistently enforced — regardless of the employee’s role in the organization.

Legal Landmines

Employers and H.R. professionals should check with their legal representatives to ensure that any statements or written policies avoid creating legal liability for the organization. In proactively creating a respectful and civil culture, employers could unintentionally expose themselves to liability around several issues, including:

  • Policies Should Be Narrow and Respect Free Speech Rights. While some employees may feel they have a right to say anything, they are obviously incorrect. Employers can create and enforce policies that support a professional and respectful workplace. H.R. professionals should beware, however, of creating policies that are generalized and could be deemed to impede on employees’ protected conversations around pay or working conditions.

  • Disparate Treatment. As mentioned above, it is crucial to enforce all policies on a consistent basis. To support a healthy company culture employees should perceive the H.R. process as consistent and unbiased. Moreover, consistency minimizes an employee’s allegations of disparate treatment.

The goal of a healthy company culture remains at the forefront of healthy business organizations. While a goal of tolerance or the robust exchange of political ideas can exist in an organization, leaders and H.R. professionals are wise to establish unwritten and written standards long before these conversations arise. Now it’s your turn: Where have you seen a great example of leadership and civility exhibited in the workplace?

Stay focused,


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