Ready or Risky? Assessing Organizational Preparedness for Political Polarization

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Organizations can mitigate workplace threats from political and social pressures by thinking ahead.

Is your organization prepared to face politically charged problems in the workplace as we enter the 2024 election cycle, or does it remain vulnerable? With polarization in our culture reaching record highs, the likelihood and severity of workplace incidents driven by politics have risen to unprecedented levels. Talk of the upcoming elections should come as an excellent reminder to bolster your organization against sociopolitical strife.

Political polarization can lead to various forms of poor treatment and incivility at work. It does considerable harm to individuals, and research suggests that the negative effects permeate organizational culture, impacting outcomes such as productivity and employee satisfaction/retention.

With the indictments of Republican front-runner Donald Trump, the election cycle is already underway, providing a preview of what this season will look like. Polarization is already apparent. It’s easy to see how the rhetoric and legal maneuvering over Trump’s indictments could already pose extreme tensions in the workplace. As some celebrate, others are appalled; conflicts may provoke animosity, ostracization, and even attempts at revenge.

The many potential trigger points on the near-term horizon include, to cite just a few:

  • Indictments, acquittals, dismissals, or convictions in the cases against Donald Trump;
  • Political, legal, or media activity around alleged corruption in the Biden family;
  • SCOTUS rulings on critical cases;
  • The war in Ukraine and NATO/US involvement;
  • Threats to rights posed by state and federal laws (e.g., bodily autonomy, free speech);
  • Sociopolitical clashes along group identities and lines of division (e.g., race, gender);
  • High-profile violence such as any involving police or mass shootings.

Over the past few years, US elections have been the most predictable source of workplace agitation, if not necessarily the strongest. It’s become expected that the losing side of an election will contest the outcome, but few could have predicted that such an injurious event as that of January 6, 2021, would occur. And while the 2020 elections were certainly disruptive in workplaces, nothing in recent memory has had quite the same impact as the death of George Floyd earlier that year. Despite awareness of extensive problems in policing, this event became the catalyst for more violence and unrest than the election—even before it was legally deemed a murder—because it was viewed as racially motivated. The next sociopolitical bombshell is likely to appear just as suddenly. Are you ready?

How impactful on workplaces was the death of George Floyd and the resulting unrest? There is plenty of evidence. Nearly 41% of employees in an Ipsos poll reported lasting changes in their organization resulting from it, and 74% of Black executives polled reported witnessing “positive change in hiring, retention, and promotion of Black employees” afterward. It’s reasonable to assume that these changes came in response to considerable pressure and following many difficult conversations within organizations.

Over the coming two years, will the 2024 elections be the biggest risk factor for politically charged workplace incidents? It’s hard to tell, but political polarization has risen. 2024 is shaping up to be unique as Americans consider the potential for a second term for such polarizing candidates as Trump and Joe Biden, not to mention Trump’s various indictments. Biden has been rated as even more polarizing than Trump, which I suspect reflects that he has been president more recently. The next presidency will probably be even more polarizing—unless a unifying figure emerges to surprise us.

What is certain is that the 2024 election cycle provides an opportunity to assess your organizational resilience to political strain.

Preparing for the election cycle presents a good time to consider how polarization is affecting an organization’s internal culture—and what to do about it. Here are some questions that may reveal your organization’s readiness to tackle political polarization:

  • If someone inside your organization wanted to take out political frustrations on ideological enemies at work, could they?
  • How powerful are the informal social groups or factions inside your organization, and to what extent are they formed around politics?
  • Is your organization a safe place for every reasonable viewpoint?
  • What are the relevant policies in place governing political discussion at work?
  • If an employee were found to have participated in a protest, riot, or act of political violence, would it affect their job status?
  • How do you know if political reasons underlie any treatment of others, inclusion in groups/teams/projects, or advancement?
  • How do you know what the experience of employees has been regarding politics? Are you asking and assessing?
  • What would be the consequences if one of your employees were publicly identified as a participant in a riot or other violent incident?
  • Is your organizational stance activist, apolitical, or somewhere in between—and is this where you need it to be?

Asking these questions is easy, answering them is difficult, and reforming your culture based on those answers is harder still. For example, if there are policies in place, do they adequately communicate expectations? Do they appear objective or biased? Will the actions of the organization (e.g., terminations) be accepted as pursuant to those policies? The same complexity unfolds for each topic. When looking at social groups, if there are political factions inside an organization, should there be intervention or just clear limits on unethical behavior? And so on.

It’s also a good idea to examine past company incidents to identify what went wrong and to seek patterns that could indicate that an issue is an organizational problem rather than a social one (or a combination of both).

Fortunately, many of the issues can be addressed affirmatively via policy and good communication that leave little room for politically driven misbehavior. For performance management and advancement, fairness can be ensured with clear, relevant criteria, transparency, and the involvement of multiple people to mitigate individual biases.

At the earliest phases, it is critical that your organization have a politically diverse coalition assess risks, predict problems, ensure that policies are not just formalizing biases, and make recommendations before trouble surfaces. Political diversity will ensure that this group can anticipate the full spectrum of problems likely to arise. We tend to exaggerate the threat posed by those we disagree with while misunderstanding our opponents’ motivations. For example, we’ll see “threats to democracy” coming from our opponents but not from our allies. Perhaps one side sees how religious belief is likely to become a source of incivility, and the other side more clearly sees how sexual preference carries similar risks. Often-inaccurate caricatures attend groupings of all kinds, such as Libertarian, Antifa, America First, Socialist, Tea Party, LGBTQ, Anarchist, Social Justice, BLM, and Alt-right. Achieving a more specific understanding—whether this means they pose more or fewer concerns than the caricature suggests—typically comes from focusing diverse perspectives on the groups. While making policy specifically around these groups is not the way forward, the ways they are understood and misunderstood can illustrate how essential political diversity is to the process.

Some organizations take the stance that the workplace is an inappropriate venue for political debate. Policies banning or limiting political speech at work may feel un-American at first, but amid increasing political polarization, the benefits are clear. Such policies might protect people, particularly those with minority viewpoints, by discouraging discussion. This is particularly true in workplaces with a lot of political homogeneity and only a few people thinking differently; the risks of speaking honestly are high. If many people simply lie or stay quiet at work because their opinions would be unpopular, they may be compelled to witness all sorts of unwelcome discussions.

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The opposite approach is to allow all political speech—but within a cultural setting where speech is safe and productive. While this is probably the best of all options, it’s the hardest to create. Because every communication channel is also an avenue for problems and amplification, maintaining overarching cultural and organizational guardrails may be the only way to foster open dialogue. A Slack channel for political talk, for instance, could offer productive exposure and discussion; it could also provide the means for staff to gang up on one person, indulge in virtue signaling, or make an employee feel safe enough to share a view that ultimately leads to their mistreatment.

Addressing all of these concerns is a complex task. It requires extensive expertise and effort. However, some general guidance can help start things off in the right direction.

A strong culture can serve as a wonderful hedge against the effects of political polarization at work, so a long-term plan to assess and reform your culture is advisable. For the short term, though, a focus on anticipating problems and setting forth good policies can help companies survive well enough to focus better on culture over time. The first relevant task here is to deeply and promptly assess culture (including surveys, interviews, feedback) to reveal areas of concern and create a baseline.

Researchers have suggested that political minorities should be regarded like other minorities and be provided protection from incivility and mistreatment.

Strong evidence shows that political beliefs are substantially fixed, determined by genetics and certain factors beyond an individual’s control. Such fixed characteristics as race and sex, however, don’t have the broader impacts on other people that voting and political speech can exercise, so it will never fully suffice to compare political identity with physical or other identity characteristics. The best categorization of political identities may be that of a concealable stigma, which includes personal aspects such as a history of addiction, sexual orientation, mental illness, and HIV status that are “associated with numerous negative health and psychological outcomes such as reduced self-esteem, depression, anxiety, stress, and increased suicide ideation,” according to Lemaro R. Thompson at the University of La Verne.

Problems of momentum and expectation will also hamper efforts to smooth political issues. The organization may be seen as inconsistent or become the target of intolerance if its actions conflict with the wishes of employees. Even promoting tolerance could be a problem if the organization was previously deemed a like-minded ally by employees who perceive that they are now being criticized.

Once policies are in place, and efforts to guide culture are underway, assessment and feedback systems can function as channels to enable those who feel that something is wrong to speak up. Such feedback channels are extremely limited in utility when staff fear using them or if they merely feed into systems that lack adequate policies and communication. Making changes for 2024 at this time might seem like too little, too late, especially if you haven’t been purposively selecting employees to create an open, tolerant, and diverse culture. Doing nothing now might seem far worse in retrospect.

This review of selected strategies should serve as a reminder to think for the longer term and to implement comparable approaches when possible. A helpful guiding principle is to aim to identify, predict, and manage typical human behavior. At this level of analysis, individuals who stand to the left or right or who favor authoritarian or laissez-faire solutions function in the same basic way.

For more on political polarization in the workplace, subscribe to the Ethical Systems newsletter. An upcoming research page will thoroughly explore political polarization, its effects, and proposed solutions.