Are There Taboo Office Topics Anymore?
Vol. 15 No. 3
The day after Election Day was a somber one for many. The media were going crazy with pro and con debates; activist groups on both sides were hosting rallies; and the majority of us office worker-bees mustered through most of that Wednesday in a daze. Regardless of what side of the political fence you were on, the results required a day of reflection. As a nation, we were imagining our next four years.
After we collected ourselves and our thoughts settled, most of us were left in a strange position. Politics is one of those taboo topics HR departments tell us not to discuss during work hours. Like religion, political conversations can quickly enter a red danger zone of offensive or harassing language. This opens organizations up to not just HR claims, but, if the conversation balloons past red and into the purple flashing critical mass zone, your school can find itself in a nasty lawsuit.
However, this election wasn’t like those in the past. It opened up some very tender topics such as women’s rights, immigration, equal pay, minimum wage, and the portrait of racism, which have emotionally impacted many. You might have heard some the varying fears from employees with working visas, minorities, and females through your own school’s halls and lounges—not to mention student conversations. In years past, advice coming from HR Managers and HR resources leaned more toward “these topics are taboo, let’s keep the conversations out of the workplace” mentality. This year, there’s a different approach taken by some to help employees emotionally manage the election results.
The Chicago Tribune published an article highlighting how firms in the Chicago area were dealing with the emotional response to the election. Instead of quieting the chatter, some HR Directors and companies encouraged their employees to discuss their feelings in an open and accepting way in an effort to assist the healing process.
Creating an open environment isn’t as simple as sending an email and inviting people to discuss their feelings—especially if your culture has been more conservative concerning taboo topics. Rules of conversation need to be clearly stated, and your HR team needs to be prepared for any and all situations.
Ask before speaking.
Caution employees to ask those around them if it’s OK to discuss their opinions, feelings, and recent events that have caused a sense of unsettlement and/or confusion. If not everyone feels comfortable discussing a topic, then should be tabled until the atmosphere is accepting.
Find a safe zone.
Sensitive conversations need a safe environment to be expressed. Encouraging employees to discuss their feelings around a confrontational event or topic in the employee lunchroom probably isn’t the best idea. For those who aren’t open to discussing the situation with coworkers, this intrudes in their break time and can cause resentment or a sense of harassment. Instead, dedicate a classroom and a time where employees can come and vent. Or, extend office hours for those who would like to discuss the issue one-on-one with HR.
Know your state law—and your rights.
K–12 schools don’t typically affiliate with political parties. However, political support is welcomed from all, so there are most likely some schools out there that have an invested interest. It is against federal law for an employer to persuade an employee to vote one way or another. However, here is a trivia fact for you: in most states, it is legal for employers to give more hours to employees who support the candidate the company is supporting.
Honor your employee handbook and school’s culture.
Employees at private companies do not have First Amendment rights to express themselves freely. If your school is not comfortable with addressing political conversations on campus, employees must respect your policy(s). This includes not permitting campaign clothing, lesson plans revolving around campaign platforms, rallies, debates, and the like. However, keeping this election off school campuses seems to be a real challenge for schools this year.
As transition slowly happens over the upcoming months in our government, you might find your HR team looking for new methods to manage employee concerns and emotions. NPR recently published an article about the shift in morale in work environments. A good percentage of their reporting is based in classrooms. The school environment is especially open to discussion and biases illustrating tensions because its core purpose is to educate—taking a deep look at current affairs, reflecting on history, and discussing philosophy about possible outcomes. Schools are for learning, and this election is certainly a learning experience.
Additional ISM resources of interest
The Source for Academic Leadership Vol. 13 Vol. 9 Six Bipartisan Ways to Address the US Presidential Election at School
Additional ISM articles of interest for Gold members
I&P Vol. 39 Vol. 3 Conflict Resolution: Moving From Risk and Toxicity to Predictability and Support