Blog Post

Navigating the Election Year in the Workplace

By Subha Barry
November 2, 2023

It’s a challenging time to be a DEI and/or talent leader. We’ve faced many obstacles during the 36 months in which we have seen the overturning of Roe v. Wade and Affirmative Action and the weaponization of DEI as “woke” politics. What used to be considered taboo topics of conversation are becoming prevalent topics in the workplace, and employees’ personal points of view on everything from politics to religion to socioeconomics to injustices are now openly talked about. This makes sense as more organizations create psychologically safe spaces and encourage employees to bring their “full selves” to work. According to a 2022 study from SHRM, nearly 40 percent of workers said that the frequency of discussions of political issues in the workplace has risen over the past three years. Now that we find ourselves officially less than one year away from our next presidential election, how can we, as DEI and talent leaders, work to help bridge this potential divide?

As with any election, people are starkly divided on various societal and political issues, not to mention which candidate they are supporting. Many don’t seek a balanced reporting of the news and opt to focus on one news outlet, depending on their political leanings. We all certainly prefer our own echo chambers. But when someone can open a person’s mind to view both sides of the spectrum, it allows that individual to form a more informed opinion. At Seramount, it is our hope that we can help you effectively navigate these polarizing times while building an inclusive workplace culture where every voice is valued, differences are celebrated, and conversations are respectful, regardless of political affiliation. How can we create a work environment where one person’s opinion is expressed without making another person feel unwelcome or unsafe? 

Here are three things we recommend:

Create a psychologically safe space for your employees

The 24-hour news cycle can be hard to ignore, and presidential elections can be a major disruptor to the workplace. According to a survey by Zippia, 79 percent of workers were distracted from work by the 2020 election, and hiding personal beliefs can be a challenge. With 47 percent of employees discussing politics in the workplace, it’s important for employers to provide a safe space to share political views without fear of retribution. In fact, more than one in three employees believes they would experience negative repercussions if their employer knew their political beliefs. It’s important for employees to have a space to process the buildup and the results, given how polarizing the environment can be. They also need guidance on how to disagree without becoming disagreeable and, as a result, impact their own and others’ ability to be effective in their workplaces. 

Seramount’s Employee Voice Sessions (EVS) allow organizations to listen directly to their employees in an anonymous setting. As employees speak openly, without fear of identification, managers can learn about what their teams are experiencing, from anxiety to bias, due to their beliefs, and then use that information to set a plan to build an inclusive workplace where all voices are heard and recognized.

Some employees might take to their personal social media accounts to voice their opinion on various topics. Make sure your company or employee handbook is up to date with very clear social media guidelines and that it outlines the company’s values. It should be made clear that employees who utilize the company’s social media or represent the organization on their personal accounts could expose themselves (and the organization) to risk if posting personal views.

Upskill your managers in fostering essential conversations

Leading difficult (but essential) conversations is an important skill for any manager, especially in today’s turbulent environment. Upskilling managers to facilitate and navigate conversations on difficult topics such as politics, racism, social injustices, global events, and more is a critical piece of this puzzle. Many don’t know where to start. Managers should enable a dialogue to increase openness, build awareness, and promote understanding. Their own personal beliefs might be challenged, but learning how to remain neutral and nonjudgmental while creating space for candor is vital to these conversations’ success. Authenticity and vulnerability will strengthen communication and levels of trust, and this will pave the way for future constructive conversations. This needs to happen while learning to keep an eye on the company’s business objectives: its mission, vision, goals, and priorities. This will help the manager/leader bring the focus back to building a high-functioning and collaborative team.

Communicate thoughtfully and prioritize mental health

We still live in largely segregated societies. So much of our exposure to others who are not from our own communities comes in schools, colleges, and workplaces. With more political and societal conversations taking place in the workplace, it’s only natural that employees expect to hear from their leaders during times of crisis and disruption. According to JobSage, more than four in five Gen Z adults want companies to take a stand. But it’s not always easy to identify when action should be taken. One of the most frequent partner requests we receive is about communication best practices, especially when it comes to “how” to respond to societal injustices and global events, whether it be internally or externally. Our DEI experts think through each issue and then give our partners the tools needed to make an informed decision on their part. While we don’t explicitly tell an organization whether to respond or not, it’s critical that they analyze each outcome and align their messaging with the organization’s values and priorities. Organizations should also encourage their employees to get to the polls and vote, while giving them the time and space to do so on Election Day.

Communication can also help bolster the mental health of your workforce. It’s important for leaders to recognize that each of us carries the weight of the world on our shoulders differently, and external factors can distract from day-to-day work, especially as we head into what will likely be a tumultuous election year. The good news is that companies are making mental health a top priority. In fact, 94 percent of Seramount’s 100 Best Companies have policies supporting mental health in the workplace. It’s important for organizations to communicate what offerings are available. Whether it’s the ability to join an Employee Resource Group, participating in listening circles or employee assistance programs, or becoming informed about access to counseling support, the information should be clearly outlined and easily accessible. Within bounds of reason, employees should be allowed some grace to do what is right for their own well-being and mental health.

Organizations should continue to think about what can unite them as a company or team. By proactively addressing polarization and promoting a culture of respect and inclusion, DEI and talent leaders can help create a more harmonious and productive work environment during election years and beyond. It’s important to strike a balance between diversity of thought and maintaining a respectful and inclusive workplace.

Think of your mission and how you bring it to life. You must have clarity around which individual behaviors are acceptable and which are not. There must be boundaries set that are rational and reasonable, compassionate and balanced. You will never please everyone all the time. But with clear communication that is delivered in a transparent and thoughtful way, most of your employees will understand and accept your decisions. Why is this so?  Because we humans want to be heard, acknowledged, and respected. We don’t count on every decision going our way, but we surely need validation and compassion. That builds trust, and trust in turn builds loyalty and understanding, and isn’t that what all leaders and companies should strive to do?

To learn more about how Seramount’s Diversity Best Practices Membership can help your organization through turbulent times, please contact us here.

To learn more about how Seramount’s Learning Solutions can help create lasting behavior change in your organization, please contact us here.

Join us on November 16th for a deeper dive into this topic at our upcoming webinar: From Polarization to Inclusion: Keep Your Workforce United in an Election Year. Register here.

About the Author

Subha V. Barry
Subha Barry