Let's talk politics (or not): what to do if a debate breaks out at work

  • Dispute Resolution
four colleagues having a discussion
Kate Palmer FCIPD - Director of HR Advice and Consultancy at global employment law consultancy, Peninsula.

Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy Director

(Last updated )

With the general election coming up, politics is a big topic of conversation right now. So if a heated debate breaks out at work, how should you handle it?

Political debates…to ban or not to ban? That is the question.

The issue with political discussions is they’re a distraction. They can destroy staff relations. And all it takes is one careless comment and you’ve got a discrimination claim on your hands.

So, if your workers have delved into the murky matter of politics, here’s how to deal with it…

1. Establish ground rules

Although it might be tempting, don’t try to ban political discussions entirely. It’s not practical. If you try to control what staff talk about, it’s more likely to hurt rather than help the workplace culture.

It’s important to create a culture that embraces open communication. Your staff should be able to raise their concerns. If they keep them in, they’re likely to erupt at some point.

So, let discussions happen but lay out some ground rules. Even if your team has opposing political views, they can still be respectful towards each other.

Your rules might be to:

  • limit political discussions during work hours
  • ban political literature, badges, or jokes
  • remain civil and respectful when discussing politics
  • be open-minded
  • have zero-tolerance for bullying, harassment, or hate speech

It’s best to establish these rules when staff first join the company, so everyone is aware upfront. It might also be useful to send out resources on how to have civil political discussions at work.

2. Set up a policy

To make sure your staff are clear on the ground rules, enforce them in a policy. Your policy should outline:

  • the company’s attitude towards political debates
  • behaviour that is versus isn’t acceptable
  • forbidden activities – e.g., demonstrating or creating petitions
  • the difference between opinion and hate speech
  • the process for staff to report an incident
  • the consequences for staff who don’t follow the rules – i.e. disciplinary action or dismissal

You can reduce the risk of discrimination claims by checking your equality and diversity policies are up to date. And make sure all your workers have a copy of your disciplinary and grievance process.

3. De-escalate the debate

If a political debate between staff starts to become uncivil or distracting, try to de-escalate the situation rather than join in. Lead by example and change the subject back to a work-related topic. You don’t have to make it a big thing. You could just comment that it’s time to move on.

Other ways you can de-escalate and uphold the rules might be to:

  • call out inappropriate or insensitive comments
  • ban generalisations or name-calling
  • remind staff to respect each other’s boundaries
  • be a good role model – encourage open-mindedness, respect, and embrace diversity

If your staff try to carry on the debate, give them an informal warning. Ask them to talk outside of work hours and remind them of your policy.

If they still don’t comply, handle this as a disciplinary issue.

4. Take disciplinary action if necessary

Sometimes, an informal warning might not be enough. If you’re unhappy with your worker’s behaviour, conduct or performance, you could give them a formal verbal warning. This is usually the first step of a disciplinary process.

It might be the case that your worker’s political view is so extreme that you’re forced to escalate the process. If they cause offence, you may have grounds to dismiss them for gross misconduct.

But you should be aware that The Equality Act 2010 protects philosophical beliefs. Only the most extreme views that invalidate human rights are unprotected. So, to take action, you’ll need to show that the reason for dismissal was the behaviour rather than the belief itself.

If your worker was aggressively imposing their view, breaking the rules, or harassing colleagues then you’d have a fair reason.

Keep the peace when politics pops up

If you want to enforce boundaries around political debates at work, your HR experts can craft your policy for you. They’ll keep you safe from legal risk and allow you to invest your time where it’s needed – and make sure your staff know what’s expected of them.

And if the worst happens and you need to take further action against a worker, get Face2Face support. Your Peninsula consultant will visit your workplace and handle those difficult conversations for you. Whatever the issue, you don’t have to deal with this alone. Just give your adviser a call to discuss how on-site support would work best for you.

Or, if you’re not yet a Peninsula client, get a quote to start accessing unlimited HR support today.

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