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Back to work: We’re returning to the office after COVID. Can we handle talking politics with coworkers?

Back to work: We're returning to the office after COVID. Can we handle talking politics with coworkers?

FINANCIAL NEWS

Back to work: We’re returning to the office after COVID. Can we handle talking politics with coworkers?

Since the last time millions of American workers chatted around water coolers, the nation’s gone through a pandemic, protests powering a social justice movement, an election, an insurrection and a presidential impeachment.And now many people are returning to the office, where these polarizing topics might come up in face-to-face conversations for the first time.But how will we talk to each other in a productive and respectful way? Will we avoid it altogether? And could our deep divisions undermine the success of the companies we work for?Americans are increasingly avoiding conversations with people who aren’t like them, even in the workplace, where their economic livelihood depends on effective collaboration, research shows.And that’s how some people want it.“I was hoping for more unity after things open up,” says Brandon Bentz, 38, of Wichita, Kansas. “It’s like, let’s all try to start fresh.”Why we don’t need to meet in the middle: But we can’t allow political polarization to fester uncheckedBridge Builders book excerpt: How media can restore public trust by becoming bridge builders after COVID and electionBut after the Trump era and the divisive debate over masks turned Americans against each other, he doesn’t want to talk about politics at work.“My personal philosophy is I just don’t think there’s a place for it in most workplaces,” says Bentz, who sells tortillas to grocery retailers.He’s not alone. And employers are increasingly concerned about the impact of political debates in the workplace.More than 4 in 10 human resource professionals are discouraging employees from discussing politics at work, according to an October survey by the Society for Human Resource Management.But some workers are recoiling at those restrictions.One-third of employees at a software productivity company called Basecamp said they would resign after their CEO, Jason Fried, announced in April that workers would no longer be allowed to engage in “societal and political discussions” on an internal messaging service.“It’s become too much,” he said in a blog post. “It’s a major distraction. It saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places. It’s not healthy, it hasn’t served us well.”Fried later apologized after employees apparently revolted, saying the developments were “terrible” and although the policy changes, which included other elements, “felt simple, reasonable, and principled,” the situation “blew things up internally in ways we never anticipated.”“We have a lot to learn and reflect on, and we will. The new policies stand, but we have some refining and clarifying to do,” he wrote.Fried declined an interview request for this story.Tension when we go back to workThe Basecamp episode reflects how much tension awaits employers and employees when they begin seeing each other in person for the first time as remote work arrangements come to an end.While casual conversations about polarizing issues may not be natural on live-video meetings like Zoom, they’re standard around the office, where the debate over issues like masks and the election could quickly become heated.In 2020, 44% of human resource professionals reported intensified political volatility among their workers, up from 26% in 2016, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, a trade association. And they fear that it could begin hurting productivity.“Toxic polarization stifles creativity and the free exchange of ideas between people with different worldviews, making it harder to collaborate everywhere, including at work,” says Andrew Hanauer, CEO of the One America Movement, a nonprofit that combats polarization.Unlikely pair try to bridge political chasmIt’s hard to imagine a more unlikely pair – the Quaker and the QAnon follower. But two Marylanders on opposite ends of the political spectrum are trying to bridge the divide in their community, one issue at a time. (Jan. 25)APThe potential collision of opinions requires employers to thoughtfully train workers on how to have healthy conversations in the workplace, says Steven Dinkin, president of the San Diego-based National Conflict Resolution Center.“Coming back into the workplace, seeing colleagues and trying to reestablish a team atmosphere is going to be absolutely critical,” Dinkin says. “If you don’t address some challenging issues, then it’s going to be really hard for people to work together.”That’s why the National Conflict Resolution Center recently partnered with the University of California San Diego to establish the Applied Research Center for Civility, which will devise solutions for healthy discourse based on academic research and real-life conflict resolution practices, says co-chair Elizabeth Simmons.In many cases, healthy discourse starts with listening, she says.Start with listeningWhen you “actually listen to one another and learn from another’s point of view, even when you don’t agree, it’s the opposite of silencing,” says Simmons, who also serves as executive vice-chancellor of the University of California, San Diego. “It enables you to hear many points of view in the same room without exploding into anger.”Learning how to talk to each other is the premise of an event this weekend called America Talks, which is being sponsored by more than 350 organizations through the #ListenFirst Coalition and promoted by Gannett’s USA TODAY Network. More than 5,000 Americans have signed up to have conversations about difficult topics with people who aren’t like them during America Talks, kicking off the 2021 National Week of Conversation, when more than 100 organizations plan to hold similar events to catalyze discussions on hard issues. (You can sign up for free through Friday night to participate in America Talks.)Engaging in healthy discourse comes down to “listening with curiosity, speaking from your own experience and connecting with respect,” says Pearce Godwin, CEO of the Listen First Project.The opposite is when conversations “occur with vitriol and animosity and judgment and in a way that takes us from the democratic, pluralistic virtue of disagreement into that space of dislike and even dehumanization,” Godwin says. “That’s what the ‘toxic’ in ‘toxic polarization’ means – that I don’t just disagree with you, that I dislike, despise, even detest you.”Learning how to have difficult conversations in the workplace is especially crucial because it’s virtually impossible for employers to prevent workers from discussing divisive issues, says Dinkin, president of the National Conflict Resolution Center.“People are going to have the conversation even if the manager wants to avoid it,” he says.So what employers should do, he says, is to create structured opportunities for workers to discuss polarizing events.George Floyd discussionsFor example, after the murder of George Floyd sparked outrage and a social justice movement, the National Conflict Resolution Center brought in experts from the outside to hold a moderated discussion on the topic among its own employees.“We had an opportunity for everyone to express their feelings about the George Floyd tragedy, and then we broke up into small groups and people continued to have those conversations and then we came back together,” Dinkin says. “If outside facilitators are brought in, then it’s done in a controlled environment and there are certain ground rules to handle some of those challenging topics.”Employers should take steps to ensure that workers know they value diversity in all respects, including opinions, says Johnny C. Taylor, CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management.Their philosophy should be that “you will be confronted in work with opinions that you don’t agree with. And as a part of our culture, we embrace diversity,” said Taylor, who writes an advice column for USA TODAY.But there are limits, he says. While healthy discussions about polarizing issues are worth pursuing, employers also have a vested interest in keeping workers focused on their jobs, Taylor says.“That means we will see managers be demoted if they can’t manage these situations,” he says. “We will see employees be terminated if they cannot operate in this environment.”Taylor acknowledges that some workers demand to be allowed to voice their opinions on contentious topics, while others want the opposite.While many Basecamp workers quit over the company’s new no-politics policy, Taylor speculates that some potential employees might be attracted to work there because of it.“How many people then applied to replace those people because they said that’s precisely the environment I want to work in?” Taylor says.A no-politics workplaceBentz, the Wichita, Kansas worker, says that’s the type of atmosphere he’s looking for. In fact, it’s exactly what he had for more than a decade when he worked for someone who never said anything political.“My former boss, a great guy, would give you the shirt off his back,” Bentz says. “He could be a hardcore Trump supporter, he could be a hardcore liberal. I have no clue.”Bentz says when you’re trying to work, build a team and accomplish goals, talking politics doesn’t have a place.But many advocates for bridge-building between people say it’s not possible to remove politics from the workplace.“Understand that these conversations are going to happen around the literal or proverbial water cooler,” says Godwin of the Listen First Project. “it’s not productive or even plausible to wish them away.”Rather, bosses should establish a culture of inclusion that includes respect for different perspectives, he said.“Especially in cases where they may not personally agree or personally hold that perspective,” he says. “Create an environment where that kind of posture toward our coworkers is rewarded, is expected, and an environment in which demeaning coworkers because of their alternate perspectives is not tolerated.”Demonizing coworkersThe consequences of demonizing coworkers or refusing to talk to them could be significant.During the 2020 presidential primary season, before the pandemic erupted, 36% of American workers avoided talking to or collaborating with a coworker due to that person’s political views, according to a survey by research and advisory group Gartner.At the time, nearly one-third said they had “witnessed at least one instance of unacceptable treatment of a coworker because of their political beliefs, including being called offensive names, being avoided by colleagues or being treated unfairly,” according to Gartner.If behavior like that continues to permeate the workplace, experts fear that it will eventually undermine the American economy as it hobbles collaborative projects that lead to productivity gains and innovation.What if pharmaceutical researchers working on COVID vaccines had refused to collaborate because they disagreed about politics?“It’s hard to become a successful entrepreneur, build business connections outside of your existing circles, or innovate if you’re stuck in an echo chamber,” says Hanauer of the One America Movement. “Like leaders of any kind, employers should work hard to build a culture that welcomes diverse viewpoints to encourage innovation and progress.”You can follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey and subscribe to our free Daily Money newsletter here for personal finance tips and business news every Monday through Friday morning. Bomey is also the author of the new book, “Bridge Builders: Bringing People Together in a Polarized Age.”


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