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How to deal with a politically polarized workforce


We’ve seen sharp polarization of political beliefs in universities and the public at large to the point where groups simply shout at each other with no ability to listen. This becomes a problem when it bleeds into the organization. Most HR leaders don’t like to talk about cases where polarized political or social opinions affect their company, so you may think it only happens rarely. But take a moment to whisper to a colleague about the issue and you’ll hear uncomfortable stories.

Political conflict is already an issue in the workplace

One public example of polarized views is the case when Google fired (then re-hired) one of their chefs because he made a pie. It was not just any pie, it was a delicious chocolate crème pie with goji berries from Tibet. It was as a "Free Tibet goji berry chocolate crème pie." This led to an outcry from Chinese employees who felt this was an aggressive statement favouring the dismemberment of China. We can argue whether the chef simply meant “the pie is free”, or if it was a reasonable political view to advocate for a free Tibet, or if it was a fireable offense. The point is that a tiny incident that seemed entirely innocent turned into a firestorm that HR was ill-prepared to deal with.

These “free pie” fiascos are becoming more common as political polarization heats up. Some companies gave support to employees suffering “post-election” stress after Donald Trump won the American presidency, that led to Republican employees feeling demeaned and wondering why they hadn’t been given support in the previous election when Obama won. In other cases, employees have accused their CEOs of supporting fascism if they have not made a public statement about the troubles in Charlottesville. CEO’s worry this will get them stuck in the middle of a fractious issue when they should be attending to business, but they dare not let the accusation go unaddressed.

The correct approach for HR

The challenge for HR is that often each side believes they are unambiguously right and the other side is very, very bad. HR itself may find itself uncritically taking one side which just adds to the polarization. The correct approach is to see these issues as matters of conflict resolution. The field of conflict resolution has the tools and mindsets for defusing the tension so people can get back to work.

To successfully handle polarized political beliefs there has to be some kind of process that can be called upon when these issues arise so that the company is not making it up as they go along. The process needs several elements:

• There needs to be a clear way to initiate the process • There needs to be ground rules (such as basic civility and a willingness to listen) • There needs to be the objective of mutual accommodation, not the finding of right vs wrong • There needs to be a respected, neutral facilitator • There needs to be transparency of the process

It wouldn’t hurt to identify a couple of conflict resolution experts you can bring in should the need arise. The process should end with both sides feeling heard, and with some agreement about how everyone will behave in the future so that the conflict does not continue.

Solving the free pie dilemma

My pitch for conflict resolution seems reasonable, but often HR departments take the opposite approach. HR will have a set of noble sounding principles and they will approach conflict by judging it against those principles. Having a set of noble principles also sounds reasonable so it’s important to understand how they can stoke hatred.

In the free pie case, the company may have felt that there is a principle of “don’t be a racist” and that the chef has violated this principle by doing something deeply offensive to Chinese. Having labeled the chef a racist the obvious action was to fire him. This, of course, does nothing to bring reconciliation between the people who felt the chef hadn’t done anything wrong and those who felt it was an outrage.

What the company should have done is started from the position that both sides were comprised of good people with good intent. The two sides could start by acknowledging this. Then each side would explain their thinking so that everyone would understand where they were coming from. Finally, there would be some agreement on action. In this case, it would simply involve changing the name of the pie and an explanation that this was a controversial topic which did not belong in the cafeteria. No one would be wrong (after all it was an innocent mistake of the chef based on good intent) and no one would be penalized. Even in more serious cases, such as accusations of sexual harassment, the starting point is good people with good intentions, and the goal is finding a set of behaviours going forward that all parties are willing to live with. Declaring some wrong, and a bad person, and punishing them, is not the way to build an effective community within the organization. We must fight the seduction of righteousness that leads us to the path of punishment rather than reconciliation.

What to do first

Ask the CEO to set up an advisory committee to put in place and oversee a conflict resolution process. I’d hesitate to put this committee under the diversity & inclusion department; a mix of senior managers from across the business would be much more credible and the committee should report in directly to the CEO since some issues are explosive.

The committee need not do that much, the process should be simple and can be just be pulled out of a book on conflict resolution. If and when a case arises they can begin the process and draw in external resources if needed. It’s simply a question of not being caught flat footed with no process and then fall into the trap of thinking management’s job is to decide who is right and who is wrong and then punish the wrong doer. Believe me, in the current political climate in many part of the world these issues will land on your doorstep with increasing virulence. Get that advisory committee nominated right away.


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