The 2016 election is getting closer, and most people have their personal opinions about political leaders' social and policy stances. When the election comes up in the workplace, it can sometimes lead to heated discussions and possibly altercations among co-workers.
The race to the White House is already taking a toll on American workers. According to a study from the American Psychological Association, U.S. employees say political discussions around the office are stressing them out and making them more argumentative and less productive.
But it doesn't have to be that way: There are plenty of ways for people to embrace political activity at work that can lead to a stronger company culture, rather than a divisive one, said Jacqueline Breslin, human capital director at TriNet, an HR outsourcing company.
With so many people feeling stress about November and beyond, here's how to diffuse any tense situations that may arise from political discussions at work. [See Related Story: 6 Types of Office 'Politicians' and How to Handle Them]
Set guidelines and boundaries
As an employer, setting boundaries is a great way to avoid any issues that may arise from election-related conversations.
"Employers should provide clear guidelines for how to discuss politics in the workplace and how to display political affiliations," Breslin said. "While you want to support your employees' rights to express themselves, you also should set clear policies outlining how to do so professionally."
She recommended that managers or the HR department post guidelines on what is appropriate and inappropriate political behavior. This post should be in places all co-workers can access, such as the break room, the company's intranet or an email sent to all employees.
HR is a great resource in heated political moments. Remind employees to approach their managers or HR if someone else's politics ever interfere with their comfort in the workplace. The problem should be reported to de-escalate any uncomfortable situation.
Understand when you can and can't step in
According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an employer may not interfere with political speech where there is a "direct nexus between employment-related concerns and the specific issues that are the subject of the advocacy."
"For example," Breslin said, "employees are generally protected if they say something to the effect of, 'Support Bernie Sanders because he will raise the minimum wage.' On the flip side, employees would not be protected if they said something like, 'Support Donald Trump because he will make America great again.'"
This is because the minimum wage could affect an employee's working conditions, while the statement about making America great doesn't directly affect work
If there is a complaint filed and the conversation is determined to be protected activity, the NLRB will then generally look to your policies regarding employee conduct during work hours and in working areas to determine employees' ability to engage in that activity, she added.
Be smart on social media
It's so easy to get caught up in trending hashtags and online conversations pertaining to the election; not only are you able to say what you feel, but you're able to connect with those who feel similarly.
However, things don't always go to plan. Sometimes what you say can be published without permission to a Twitter roundup, or you can become involved in a heated argument over your views, which could spell trouble for you.
"In today's hyperconnected world, an employee's online presence often reflects on the company itself, and that's true beyond politics," Breslin said. "There is no privacy on social media, and you are 100 percent responsible for everything you say, even if the person who finds your online comments wasn't your intended audience. I have seen many people suffer backlash for what they thought was private online activity. It just isn't worth it."
Lacy McNamee, Ph.D. and an assistant professor at Baylor University's College of Arts and Sciences Department of Communication, agreed, noting that your personal stances could be particularly problematic if you work for an organization that has strong political ties.
"If you work for a nonprofit organization, realize that talking about politics at work can be sticky," McNamee said in a statement. "When nonprofits seek government grants, they need the support of legislators — even if those legislators are not the ones they would vote for. Being too outspoken could work to your organization's detriment."
Keep it light (or step out completely)
To avoid heated and hurtful arguments about politics, always keep conversations in the workplace very light, positive and not deeply personal.
"More personal, heated topics should be saved for life outside the office and after business hours with family and friends, not with co-workers," Breslin said.
Finally, McNamee reminded workers that not everyone has to agree with one another. No matter how strongly you believe in what you are debating, you likely aren't going to change your co-workers' opinions, and it's OK to agree to disagree — or sit the conversation out entirely.
"Remember that while you are entitled to your opinions, you are also entitled to keep them to yourself," McNamee said.
Additional reporting by Chad Brooks.