How to navigate workplace communications when it gets political
I log onto multiple social media platforms multiple times a day. Partially because I’m a marketer and it’s my job, partially because I’m admittedly addicted to scrolling. It’s across these platforms that I see the strongest evidence of work life and personal life melding into one. In the past, from a content perspective, it was very easy to distinguish where I saw something. Cute cat video: Facebook. Gorgeous food photo: Instagram. Riveting business article: LinkedIn. Quippy opinion about a political issue: Twitter. But, today, not so much. Today, I have little recollection of where I’ve read or witnessed something because everything is overlapping. There are far fewer boundaries around “appropriate topics” for any platform because we’re all alive and we’re all talking online. Yet, this shift has been most obvious to me on LinkedIn.
What Does “Not Appropriate for Work” Mean? And Who Decides?
LinkedIn has historically been reserved for all things business-related. Just the other day I saw something fascinating happen. I saw a post discussing an individual’s personal experience with racial harassment in their workplace. The post was vulnerable, upsetting, and warranted discussion. Well, the comments section definitely had a discussion going and a key theme emerged: LinkedIn is the wrong place for this because it’s too political. LinkedIn is for business. I sat back for a moment to ask myself, “How is a person’s experience with racism at work not appropriate for LinkedIn? It’s about work, isn’t it? And, isn’t that business-related?”
Clearly, “that’s not appropriate for work” takes on a different meaning when work is discussed on a social media platform, and when work is discussed digitally. This topic may never have been brought up in an in-person office environment because of its suspected “inappropriateness” (which is a problem that deserves its own deep dive, but I digress). Digital platforms have different unwritten rules. And, politics aren’t off-limits. Given that all the platforms seem to be melding, you could see your cute cat video on Instagram, your political rant on LinkedIn, and your food photo on Twitter. Likely because all of us are active on multiple platforms, few of us are considering the differences between any of them and we’re just posting.
The idea of leaving our personal selves “at the door” when we’re at work is getting further from reality (arguably, it was unrealistic, to begin with). The topics that impact us as humans inevitably impact us at work. And, many of the things impacting us as humans are political. It’s only human for us to discuss this on LinkedIn, at work in our Slack channels, and anywhere else that we communicate.
So, do we take the path of banning all political conversations at work (cough cough looking at you, Basecamp)? (Note: the controversial decision has cost the company 30% of its staff.) Or, do we take the path of Asana and find ways to create forums, policies, and discussions around the issues impacting us as people so we can all work fully and safely in our spaces (digital, in person, or otherwise)? My gut says, companies that choose the latter will prevail. You may be the one who needs to head up that effort at your organization and it’s a lot to navigate. Here’s some info to get started.
How Did We Get Here?
How did politics and political speech arrive in our workplaces? As far as I can tell, little by little and then all at once. In the past year, many of us (me included) were shocked to learn that face masks are political. Science is political. Health choices are political. For many, merely existing is political. You could even argue that the very definition of existence is political. Now we must ask ourselves: how do we navigate politics and political speech in our workplaces?
Even if you want to keep your workplace neutral, trying to shut down everything “political” at work is impossible. Political discussions and policies permeate our lives. It’s like asking employees to show up to work and “turn off their humanity.” (Early in my career, a boss once asked me to leave my personal self at the door in order to succeed. Spoiler alert: I don’t work there anymore.) How can we learn and grow in our professional conversations if we’re told to shut up about it all?
Instead, let’s get some new practices and behaviors in place to protect everyone and ensure colleagues can listen and speak with empathy and sensitivity.
Keep Calm? Stay Civil? But, How?
How can any of us hope to get the rules around talking about sensitive subjects right if those rules and even the language itself is unclear or continually changing? What’s more, the new watchwords for workplace communication are “instantaneous” and “always-on.” Instantaneous and sensitive subjects? It’s a recipe for disaster. In this way, even the tools we use are setting us up to fail because we’re rarely left with time to think. The pace at which language and meaning are changing is so fast that no human can learn, adapt and keep up.
“Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) language is ever-growing, always evolving, and increasingly important in the workplace right now. After all, language shapes culture, and people crave supportive cultures and healthy communication in an uncertain world.” – Writer Staff
Thankfully, the staff at Writer has produced an ongoing list of diversity and inclusion terms to use in the workplace. How do I know about this list? Because I’m a word nerd? Yes. But also because I work for Fairwords, and this is essentially the software we offer as a service.
Fairwords keeps track of words and phrases that may be offensive or inappropriate, then alerts users as they’re typing so they can correct their message before hitting send. This means that navigating political discussions can happen professionally and with integrity, rather than turning into something that blows up a Slack channel, an inbox, a relationship, a team dynamic, or your company’s entire reputation. It’s okay to lean on technology as a support system for communication, the same way we lean on it to track our steps, remind us to stand up, or nudge us when we need a glass of water. We know how to do all of those things, but understandably, we forget. So, we find support.
Helping Your Organization Navigate Political Discussion
The fact of the matter is that conversations centered on anything political grow uncomfortable quickly. It’s no surprise some business leaders are choosing to avoid this reality instead of choosing to adapt to it. However, the opposite must be true in order to succeed, as discussed in an article by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), “Senior leaders can no longer sit on the sidelines and ignore social justice issues in the workplace,” said LaToi Mayo, an attorney with Littler Mendelson P.C. in Lexington, KY. Historically, certain topics, such as race, religion and politics, were deemed off limits in the workplace, Mayo said, but conversations on these topics are now prevalent, particularly because of the widespread use of social media. “The fact is that employees are engaging in these discussions, and what happens outside the workplace does impact morale,” Mayo added.
The same article outlined 3 key areas of focus to empower employees to successfully navigate political discussions:
Start with senior leadership
Develop sound policies
Create a culture of trust
Your challenge as a manager is to make sure that even when passions run high and viewpoints clash, the workplace remains respectful and productive. I know this all seems easier said than done, but regardless, committing to getting started and understanding everything will evolve as you learn is a great first step. SHRM is an excellent resource full of helpful information to help organizations get started on creating cultures where employees can effectively communicate with one another when these difficult topics arise. Another helpful resource is Inclusion Unpacked, a weekly newsletter full of actionable information to help businesses learn, adapt, and grow.
Uncomfortable topics and subjects are everywhere these days. And because we’re human and we’re messy, these topics and subjects are bound to bubble over at work. We all need to learn to communicate with empathy to make our work conversations productive. And the only way to do that is to practice, not shut down and silence ourselves. It’s possible to create an environment where people feel safe to contribute their ideas and experiences. I’m proud to work for a company that gives companies a tool to advance that initiative.
Our next post in the series on the new risks in workplace communications will shed light on the overt and hidden costs of miscommunication at work.
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Consider New Data Sources to Measure Workplace ToxicitySarah Stadler2022-08-16T18:48:44+00:00