When politics and social issues are increasingly divisive, workplaces find it challenging to forbid political conversation entirely from the workplace. In April, project management software company Basecamp faced uproar when trying to ban politics at work. Co-founder Jason Fried announced that Basecamp would no longer tolerate discussions around political or social issues “where the work happens,”
Today’s social and political waters are especially choppy. Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant. You shouldn’t have to wonder if staying out of it means you’re complicit, or wading into it means you’re a target. These are difficult enough waters to navigate in life, but significantly more so at work. It’s become too much. It’s a major distraction. It saps our energy and redirects our dialog towards dark places.
Basecamp’s ban was meant to prevent distraction and souring of work relationships, but the mandate swiftly backfired. Twenty out of some 60 employees threatened to quit.
Banning Political Discussions Isn’t That Simple
I think banning political talk is a lazy way for leadership to not deal with issues like racism, misogyny, stereotyping, and contempt that may be festering among employees.
Often, when people say they want more political discussion in the workplace, they actually mean that they want more political discussion about viewpoints they want others to conform to. Workplaces with lots of political discussions are ones where most of the staff has identical socio-political leanings. Employees with divergent political leanings tend to be reticent and stay out of such talks.
It’s neither productive nor possible to not talk about politics and society at work. Companies can’t tell employees to not bring their real selves to work. People are opinionated about politics, and everyone has views and tries to defend them. Besides, politics isn’t a neatly self-contained issue that doesn’t overlap with anything else. When an employee’s attitudes aren’t in line with the company’s—or even the majority’s—attitudes, “put up or shut up” policies end up more damaging than the bickering or backlash they are intended to avoid.
Group settings are better when divergent opinions are known. An inclusive workforce must be able to embrace a diverse range of views. Conversations will come up anyway, and instead of banning these conversations and encouraging employees to take them outside of work, employers must institute protocols for airing and understanding opposing opinions and dealing with offensive behavior.