The problem started, Johnny C Taylor Jr believes, when employers started encouraging people to work full time.
Taylor is not a crusty hangover from a conformist era where staff were expected to hold their personal views: The former head of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund for America’s historically black colleges and universities runs the Society for Human Resource Management, which represents human resource professionals. around the world.
As this mantra of inclusive management took hold, he says, employees took it literally, bringing the language, clothes and political prejudices they once left at home into offices and factories every morning.
It’s the latest of these imports that is causing SHRM members more trouble than they ever imagined. As voters become more polarized, the people who manage them are “fighting hard,” says Taylor, to contain their passionate political disagreements.
The HR profession has long preached the value of different backgrounds and worldviews in a business world where managers once preferred to hire people who look and think like themselves, he notes. “What we underestimated is that inclusion would be made very, very difficult by diversity.”
While CEOs have spoken out on polarizing issues from racial justice to abortion, we’ve paid less attention to the tensions these subjects are causing within their organizations where, in Taylor’s words, “the employees say: “I want to come to work and share my whole life.” dissatisfaction with the decision of the Supreme Court [overturning Americans’ constitutional right to an abortion] but I don’t want my partner to do the same.”
An increase in disputes between individuals with opposing views has led to workers asking managers to fire colleagues “because they don’t fit in” and potential recruits leaving because they don’t feel aligned with the organization’s values , warns Taylor.
It has also led to some ill-fated attempts to ban politics from working hours.
Last month, for example, The New York Times reported that Meta had told staff not to discuss the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe vs. Wade because “openly discussing abortion at work carries a greater risk of creating a hostile work environment”.
Coinbase and Basecamp led to employee furloughs after attempting something similar in the past two years, while Goodyear Tire and Rubber faced backlash after banning workers from wearing Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again hats.
When you delve into the costs of workplace polarization you can understand the temptation to try to silence the debates that divide so many teams. SHRM found that 41 percent of American employees have left a job at some point because they felt their values were being stigmatized.
Many more feel disengaged when surrounded by colleagues with whom they disagree, adds Jeff Jolton, head of research and insights at Kincentric, a leadership development and employee research group owned by Spencer Stuart.
The “talent surge” fueled by the Great Resignation has seen more people try to align their work with their values, notes Jolton’s colleague Seymour Adler. This is a problem if your peers have fundamentally different values.
So what should managers do if they find team members at odds with each other? Top-down ads banning political discussion aren’t the answer: A recent Morning Consult poll found that only one in five Americans supported companies responding in this way to the Court’s abortion ruling supreme
Taylor believes the best approach is to manage these conversations. This starts with reiterating a company’s commitment to diversity, including political diversity.
The alternative to including different viewpoints is groupthink, notes Adler, while developing “the ability to disagree” can even make a company more innovative, as Megan Reitz and John wrote Higgins in the Harvard Business Review last year.
Not agreeing well is the key, though. “When an employee exhibits behaviors inconsistent with our values, we get rid of them,” Taylor says bluntly, explaining the need to insist that employees remain civil.
Some managers call listening sessions whenever politics start to interfere with work, but Taylor doubts these always help. Debates can quickly turn into debates, with each side looking to win, he warns: “On most of these issues, no one comes to have an argument.”
Some conflict simply erodes collaboration, Adler echoes, so leaders have the right to set “railings,” or a shared vision of where all employees should lead, to ensure that the people stay focused on doing the job. What’s more, Jolton adds, this vision is “a big element of what people want from leadership.”
Persuading an employee with strongly held opinions to empathize with another’s opposing point of view is difficult at any time. Doing so in the context of our current political divisions is even more difficult.
But while polls show voters becoming more polarized, they also show they want less polarization. If managers get it right, our workplaces can only play a role in achieving this common goal.