Ask Kate: my employees are discussing politics on work time. Help!

  • Employee Conduct
A woman confidently poses - caption above her says 'Ask Kate'
Kate Palmer FCIPD - Director of HR Advice and Consultancy at global employment law consultancy, Peninsula.

Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy Director

(Last updated )

Whenever a staff issue comes up, Peninsula advisers are on hand to help. There’s no query too big, too small, or too bizarre for our experts to unpack.

So, if you’re sitting on a query, don’t hesitate to ask. It’s what keeps our Peninsula clients safe and successful all year round and gives them the peace of mind to focus on their business.

This caller was worried about their employees discussing political matters at work. So, they asked Kate Palmer, Peninsula’s HR Advice and Consultancy Director, for expert advice.

Here’s what they had to say…

Hi Kate,

I’ve noticed lately that some of my employees are getting into quite heavy political debates during work time. Obviously, I don’t want to stop them from talking to each other, but I’m worried about the risk of it all ending in tears and productivity grinding to a halt.

I’m not trying to run a dictatorship here and ban freedom of speech, but I’m very aware that having discussions of this nature can end badly. Is there anything I can do to gently shift the conversation away from politics without coming across like the thought police?

Any advice would be much appreciated.



Kate’s reply was…

Hi Anon,

This is a tricky issue because as you say, conversations of a political nature can veer into risky territory.

All it takes is for one employee to make a comment that offends someone else’s philosophical or religious belief. Or, one that causes upset. Then, you could end up with a discrimination claim on your hands. So, I understand your concern.

However, there are ways to reduce the risk of issues popping up without having to ban these conversations altogether.

“I don’t want to stop them from talking to each other, but I’m worried about the risk of it all ending in tears and productivity grinding to a halt.”

Establishing some ground rules upfront can help prevent political conversations from crossing the line. One way you can do this is by having a written policy in place. Your policy is there to reinforce your company’s attitude. So in it, you could outline the following:

  • Rules around standards of behaviour (and what isn’t acceptable e.g. making threats or inciting hate speech).
  • Any forbidden activities, like demonstrating or petition-making for example.
  • How staff can report an incident (if someone breaks the rules or behaves inappropriately).
  • What will happen if staff don’t follow the rules (e.g. they’ll face a disciplinary or even dismissal).
  • Your company’s zero tolerance for bullying and harassment.

But while having a policy is good for establishing boundaries, you may also need to manage conversations in person. Ultimately, it’s good to remind staff to be respectful and open-minded in how they communicate.

“I’m very aware that having discussions of this nature can end badly. Is there anything I can do to gently shift the conversation away from politics without coming across like the thought police?”

I understand that you don’t want to be seen as the ‘thought police’ but you are within your right to step in during a conversation if it calls for it.

Let’s say your employees have been engaging in a political debate for quite some time. You mention that you’re worried about them neglecting their work. Well, simply asking a work question may help bring the focus back to the work tasks at hand. Or, you could gently ask your employees if they could continue their conversation on their break or after work.

Your employees will respond negatively if they feel you’re trying to control what they say or stop them from speaking. So, that’s why it’s important to allow employees to have these chats – as long as they stay civil. And if at any point a conversation looks like it’s getting heated or disruptive, you may want to step in to diffuse and move it along.

In cases where your employee’s words and behaviour have caused offence, it may be necessary to start a disciplinary process.

You may find our blog on what to do if a debate breaks out at work useful. This explores how to manage political conversations between employees in more depth. So, you can help keep the peace when a controversial topic arises.

And in cases where a political topic directly impacts your employee, you may want to outline the support you have to offer. If your employee wants to talk about an issue that’s affecting them, point them in the direction of your employee assistance programme (EAP) if you have one. An EAP service gives staff access to free counselling and wellbeing support from third-party experts.

And even if you don’t have an EAP service, you could always point them in the direction of external organisations that offer support. Checking in regularly yourself to see if there’s anything your employee needs from you can also be a big help.

Hope this answers your query. But if you have any more questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

All the best,


P.S. Got a HR query or staff problem? Click below to get a free advice call today.


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