The question of whether employers should govern employees discussing politics in the workplace has become increasingly pertinent in today’s polarized political climate. In this article, we explore the pros and cons of regulating political talk at work, examine best practices for maintaining a respectful and harmonious environment, and provide practical guidelines for employers navigating this complex issue.

In 2024, the world will hold an unprecedented number of elections. By year’s end, nearly half the global population, spread across more than 60 countries, will experience a national election that stands to shape life – and work – for the foreseeable future.

Since 2020, people have watched their employers speak out on hot button topics ranging from coronavirus and civil rights to Brexit and the Israel-Hamas war – and they’ve learned how to parse genuine stands from opportunistic grandstanding.

It means political discourse, once considered a corporate taboo, is becoming table stakes for a growing segment of the workforce. In the U.S., for example, a 2023 Glassdoor survey found 64% of workers feel supported when their company takes a stand on issues they care about; the proportion of proponents is even higher among Gen Zers (71%), Millennials (70%), and women from those groups (81%).

As an internal communicator, your influence stretches up, down, and all around the organization, meaning you hold tremendous power – and responsibility – to radiate a clear, consistent, and inclusive approach to addressing and discussings politics in the workplace.

But you’re facing some formidable headwinds: Remote and hybrid work are redrawing the bounds of homelife, purpose is taking precedence in employment choices, and the genesis of a six-generation workforce is sowing new norms for relating to one another, all as polarization and division surge. 

It’s enough to make even the most stout-hearted internal communicator throw up their hands or batten down the hatches.

Both can backfire.

Letting political conversation free flow can foment hostility and discrimination, while attempting to stamp it out can fuel rebellion, deeper division, or even mass exodus.

So instead of drawing a line in the sand, internal communicators can use the tips ahead to foster a culture that’s strong enough to handle charged conversations with empathy, respect, and curiosity. That’s the sign of a healthy business.

“If you have an impulse to ban political speech at your organization, it may signal that the organization cannot handle difference and challenge  –  a bad sign for the company’s ability to be agile and innovative,” researchers Megan Reitz and John Higgins write in the Harvard Business Review.

Assess the state of play

The reality is that political shop talk is likely already happening in your organization, regardless of whether you like or are even privy to it. 

In Glassdoor’s recent survey, 61% of U.S. employees said discussing politics in the workplace is something they have done within the past 12 months. The trend holds in the UK, where 67% of respondents to a recent Raconteur survey said they’re at least somewhat comfortable taking on the topic at work.

“I think for a long time it was considered taboo to talk about politics in the workplace, but these conversations have always happened to some degree either in lunchrooms or at bars and happy hours and are now happening in a lot of other places as well with the changing world of work,” Glassdoor’s chief economist Aaron Terrazas tells CNBC.

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Of course, not everyone is keen on discussing politics in the workplace. Comfort levels can vary by age, gender, country, and many other dimensions of identity and preference.

Raconteur found, for example, that 18- to 24-year-old workers are three times more likely than their counterparts aged 55 to 64 to want managers to address such issues head-on.

As for national and cultural differences, public-affairs software company Quorum finds “our US-based employees are much happier to engage in this dialogue and have these conversations than our team members in Moldova or Brazil,” the company’s chief people officer Brook Carlon tells the BBC.

Catering to such a range of perspectives demands a nuanced approach, especially in organizations with workforces spanning the globe.

Take in the view from the top

As any intrepid internal communicator knows, good communication strategy only sticks when it’s modeled at the top, so spend time taking and shaping cues from the C-suite as you develop your political talk strategy.  

Keeping a finger on the global pulse can help.

Despite what public backlash might suggest, many workers and leaders still believe that companies have a part to play in social change – and a thing or two to say about it:

  • In Global Strategy Group and SEC Newgate’s 2023 survey, 77% of respondents, representing 12 countries and territories, said that it’s important for corporations to take action on ESG issues.
  • Two-thirds of nearly 900 corporate board members believe sustainability should be more fully integrated into their companies’ business strategies, according to a 2023 global survey by BCG, INSEAD, and Heidrick & Struggles.
  • In a January 2024 Weber Shandwick survey of more than 100 senior execs from global companies, 59% agreed that companies “have a responsibility to speak up and act on societal issues even if sensitive or controversial.”

Civic responsibility aside, there’s a strong business case to be made for engaging in social good. Research shows companies that invest strategically in sustainability initiatives befitting their business can increase shareholder returns by up to 5%.

Of course, taking a stand comes with its own risks: 61% percent of U.S. companies surveyed by The Conference Board expect ESG backlash to continue or increase over the next two years.

As a result of such pushback, “CEOs have lowered their voices,” Russell Dubner, BCG’s chief communications officer, said in a recent article.

They’ve changed their tone, yes, but their tune? Not so much.

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The Conference Board found a mere 11% of companies who’ve faced backlash are changing the content of their ESG programs; instead, most are focused on reinforcing the link between ESG and core business strategy.

“The big question,” says BCG article author Pete Engardio, “is how long this measured approach can be sustained, especially with pivotal elections approaching in the U.S. and Europe.”

Help your leaders think through communication response plans to potential pre-election flareups, like misinformation campaigns or threats of violence.  

Weigh your options for discussing politics in the workplace

Given all the nuanced forces shaping the future of work, it may be tempting to rule out yet another hairy variable like politics. But it’s worth discussing lessons and drawbacks with leaders. For one: Prohibition can be hard to pull off.

“Banning political speech is fundamentally implausible because it is impossible to draw a clean, objective line between what counts as ‘politics’ and what doesn’t  –  or which issues are ‘acceptable’ to discuss because they relate to the company’s mission and which aren’t,” Reitz and Higgins note in their HBR piece.

In other words, politics may be inextricable from work (and life): Offering gender-affirming care benefits, supporting an environmental law, or publicly condemning a sexist comment from an industry insider may all be seen as political – and at the same time crucial to maintaining the confidence of employees, shareholders, and other parties.

Plus, being overly restrictive can cost you big.

In 2019, Basecamp caused a stir when CEO Jason Fried put a ban on discussing politics in the workplace, as well as societal issues, and a third of its workforce resigned within days. A year later, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, crypto­currency exchange Coinbase followed suit with rules for an apolitical ­culture and likewise shed employees.

Since then, other corporate heavy weights like Google, NPR, and The New York Times have come out swinging against political and social stands.

Although they’ve seized headlines, all-out bans are rare: about 10% of Raconteur survey participants have been forbidden to talk about politics or other contentious issues in the workplace. Lighter-touch restrictions – such as barring clothes or displays with political slogans, logos, or paraphernalia – are more common, respondents said.

While it’s possible to weather the fallout from a full-out prohibition, it’s likely not the best way to handle tough topics at work.

Experts argue bans can cause widespread disruption, driving some employees – likely those at opposite poles – to loudly dissent and others to suspend critical thought as they come to expect policies and arbitration to guide their every step. What’s more, as Basecamp learned, such a move can center you in the very political firestorm you were trying to evade.

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Instead, organizations may find success with a balanced approach. In 2020, as tensions flared over Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, global fintech company Intuit introduced guardrails for how employees can talk about sticky topics on company channels. “We want you to focus on how you’re feeling and how things are affecting you as a person, and less on using our internal channels as a platform for your political views,” the company’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, Humera Shahid, told BBC.

Similarly, at Quorum, growing pressure over the Israel-Gaza war inspired new guidelines, including to be aware of how your statements could be viewed by someone who disagrees and to check in with HR about any language you’re unclear on.

Set the stage

As people bring more of themselves to work, they’re expecting more support in return. Thoughtful guidelines and resources to help in situations with high stakes – like elections, their leadups, and their aftermaths – can go a long way.

When curating these materials, ensure the contents comply with laws and regulations everywhere you conduct business. Also ensure they reflect or point to your relevant policies (e.g., on voting leave, ethics, anti-discrimination, anti-harassment), as well as company and employee values.

To promote buy in, use plain language, focus on the “why” behind decisions and stances around matters like discussing politics in the workplace, and ensure everything is easily accessible. You can use your employee experience software to create, organize, and promote a knowledge base of political resources through features like content creation tools, enterprise search, topic tags, and social functionality.

Also consider addressing the following topics:

  • Overarching goals, which should center on creating a respectful, productive, and inclusive work environment  
  • Expectations, guidance, and any prohibitions regarding political discussion or related activity, both on and off the clock
  • Best practices for managing conflict
  • Descriptions of acceptable forms of disagreement, as well as behaviors that may rise to the level of harassment or discrimination
  • Consequences for violating terms of relevant policies

Work with representatives from people, legal, the C-suite, and key employee groups throughout the process of developing and sharing resources to ensure accuracy and resonance.

Craft smarter shows of support

When helping leaders craft communications on discussing politics in the workplace and sharing stances, ensure they’re tying positions to your organization’s purpose and strategy – and backing promises with real results.

As an example, corporations with DEI commitments can highlight “the tangible and measurable business opportunities for organizations that are diverse and where people feel included and psychologically safe,” Nadjia Yousif, BCG’s chief diversity officer says, citing the firm’s study affirming these outcomes.

To help leaders decide which issues to weigh in on, consider the following questions from BCG and the Aspen Institute Business and Society Program:

  • Which issues might require a public stance because they affect company performance and reputation? What are the consequences of staying silent?
  • Is political spending understood to be a kind of corporate voice?
  • Are measures in place to ensure that leaders can speak in a timely, authentic way on topics relevant to business and employees?
  • How do team members’ voices factor into decisions about when to speak up and what to say? Does leadership source and action input from across the organization (e.g., HR, public affairs, consumer research, operations, and risk management)?

To help answer these questions, ensure you have the right capabilities to continually analyze emerging issues and employee sentiment. Too often, leaders overlook this crucial step: In a recent survey by eLearning Industry, 72% of U.S. respondents said their employer didn’t ask for their opinion before taking public stances on political issues. And such an oversight can create an echo chamber: Reitz and Higgins’ research shows that “leaders often live in a self-assured bubble thinking that they know what matters to others even when they really don’t.”

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Is engaging your employees a priority? Discover these 14 steps to building effective internal comms for your organization.

Employee listening can help bridge the divide. Make a practice of conducting individualized outreach (e.g., through focus groups and interviews) and broad-based efforts, such as pulse surveys and polls, facilitated by your EX or intranet software. One caveat: Don’t ask employees to share their specific political affiliations or stances, which are likely not actionable information, and instead focus on understanding how they’re feeling and what they may need from a wellbeing perspective.

Free your speech of foibles when discussing politics in the workplace

Once you’ve aligned on a political issue or policy that warrants communication, here are some tips on crafting a campaign or cascade that really resonates:

  • Live your values: According to a 2023 survey from The Harris Poll, 84% of Americans believe companies must have a track record of acting on their values to be taken seriously. Conversely, companies that fail to speak up quickly on issues they profess to care about can take a big reputational hit.
  • Go for the goal: Acknowledge that regardless of individuals’ beliefs on the issue at hand, emotions may be running high. Underscore that the goal isn’t to smother healthy dialogue but to reduce disruptions and maintain a culture where everyone feels safe, respected, and included.  
  • Watch your words: Find alternatives for terms that may have fallen victim to political weaponization, even if they describe well-supported ideas. As an example, the terms “DEI” and “ESG” are considered much more divisive among Americans than equivalents like “sustainability,” “equity,” and “inclusion,” according to a February 2024 Harris poll.  Similarly, “ESG” resonates well with investors, but “sustainability” tends to be better understood by employees, customers, and policymakers, The Conference Board says.
  • Use a personal touch: EX software features like recipient groups, custom delivery methods, and geofencing can help you tailor communications so everyone gets the parts of a broad-based message that resonate most with them and how they’re impacted by an issue or decision.

Support healthy debate

Black microphone on a pink background representing discussing politics in the workplace
HBR article on managing a team with conflicting views. For conversations to be constructive, colleagues must “seek to understand others’ experiences and what led them to their beliefs,” she says. “Humanize the people they disagree with.” The capacity to do so can be built through simple things, like carving out a few minutes in standing meetings to share slices of life. “These conversations may seem small, but political empathy and respect grow through the day-to-day sharing of personal stories and vulnerabilities, when we can see past the habitual labels and judgements we apply to others.” Gregory says.
  • Embed healthy disagreement: As an example, Reitz and Higgins work with a company where leaders explain how the existance and resolution of conflicts at the board level strengthen the organization.
  • Teach emotional intelligence: According to Daniel Goleman, who popularized the concept, the five pillars of emotional intelligence are self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. Cultivating EQ is especially vital among people leaders, who hold tremendous influence over their team members’ experiences and success at work – including where politics are concerned: Three in four U.S. workers surveyed by ResumeHelp in May 2024 believe their boss’s political views influence their management style and/or decisions; one in four have either left or wanted to leave their job because of these views.
  • Create dedicated space: Forums, discussion boards, and communities on your intranet can giveemployees a place to find comradery, broaden their horizons, and enforce boundaries by opting in (or out) of political discourse. Encourage people to further modulate their exposure to potentially sensitive topics by reviewing their notification preferences (e.g., by email, by push, or in platform).
  • Discussing politics in the workplace: reach across the aisle

    This historic year in global politics will no doubt test your mettle as an internal communicator. But as polarization and strife dominate the news cycle and perhaps your own company channels, don’t lose sight of the opportunity that’s also there: To support your people through a moment that truly matters, when more of them than ever are united in civic opportunity, if not how they’ll approach it.

    Free guide: Essential internal communications strategy

    Is engaging your employees a priority? Discover these 14 steps to building effective internal comms for your organization.