Polarized US politics reflected in workplace, says Randstad US report

31 October 2018 Consulting.us 4 min. read
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Employees are talking politics, whether employers would like them to or not, according to a new study from human resources consultancy Randstad US. More frequent and heated political debates – reflecting today’s fractious political environment – have the potential to alienate employees and damage workplace camaraderie. The survey was conducted by Research Now in August, and included 807 respondents from a nationally representative sample.

The Randstad study found that political conversations are, in fact, quite common in workplaces – with 55% having witnessed heated political discussion between colleagues in the workplace, while 33% admitted to taking part in heated political discussions at work. Meanwhile, 64% said that political discussions at work have grown more heated over the past 5-10 years.

Social media is also further facilitating political exchange between work colleagues, with 44% responding that their coworkers regularly discuss politics through digital channels.

Conflicting political viewpoints, unsurprisingly, can have a negative effect on workplace cohesiveness and employee wellbeing. 72% responded that they feel stressed or anxious when heated political arguments take place at work, while 44% said that such arguments can impact their productivity.How common are political conversations at work?Meanwhile, 50% said that their thoughts and feelings about colleagues changed after discovering their political beliefs. A further 46% said that they unfollowed colleagues on social media due to political posts.

Different political viewpoints can even drive employees to quit their jobs, according to the Randstad study, with 35% saying they would leave their jobs if their direct managers held very different political views than their own and were publicly vocal about them. A further 39% said that they would take pay cuts to move to companies that promoted causes aligned with their political values.

"Our study shows the topic of politics itself is extremely divisive in the workplace, reflecting our country's current polarized political climate," said Audra Jenkins, chief diversity and inclusion officer, Randstad North America. "It seems there's no escaping politics, even on supposedly neutral ground, and unfortunately this can contribute to feelings of alienation as well as deteriorating relationships in the workplace.”Political posts on social media can jeopardize work friendshipsUnsurprisingly, politics mattered even more to millennials – who have a harder time dissociating politics from identity, and their identity from politics. 69% said their feelings about colleagues changed after they found out about their political beliefs, as opposed to 50% of all workers. 67% of millennials said they’d quit their jobs over political differences with their bosses, versus only 15% of 50-64 year-olds. As such, millennials seem less likely to tolerate the views or dissenting opinions of their political opponents, strongly reflecting the chasm developing in the polarized American political landscape.

Workers are divided on whether their employers should take a stance on political issues: 46% said that it’s important for them to work for employers who take a stand on political issues, with 53% saying they want their employers to take public stands on LGBT+ rights and gun control.

"Today, the line between business and politics is becoming increasingly blurred as more and more companies take public stands on controversial issues, which simply wasn't as common even a few years ago," said Jenkins. "Our data shows employees are split on how politically engaged they want their companies to be — but many are hoping their employers will become more politically engaged, especially millennials.”Unstructured political conversations negatively impact organizations“As the millennial generation rises in the ranks in the workplace, I expect we'll see a shift in how companies manage their charitable and civic actions," she added.

According to Randstad, political conversations will inevitably occur at work, so it’s better for employers to open up dialogue in forums where they have some control. The consultancy recommends a company-wide forum to host conversations about political difference and how to have respectful political discussions – potentially making use of an experienced facilitator.

Political discussions aren’t all bad, with almost half (49%) of workers responding that they enjoy hashing out political differences with colleagues, while more than a third (37%) saying they have changed their opinions of political issues to conversations with colleagues. 65% said that they feel comfortable discussing politics with their colleagues. Therefore, there is a room to reap potential benefits like greater openness, dialogue, and cohesiveness from political conversations in a structured, managed environment – according to Randstad.