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3 steps to dealing with workplace tension caused by current events


Current events, such as political concerns, racial issues, protests and pay inequality, can cause tension and prompt employees to lose focus, get discouraged, act out, or insult or bully co-workers.

Add to that a 24-hour news cycle that constantly stirs us up and public figures who duke it out daily, and you have a recipe for a distracted and unproductive workforce.

How does an employer keep the collective focus on work and not allow the outside world to cause problems in the workplace? Here are three steps that can help.

1. Be proactive to prevent issues 

If you can prevent any potential problems before they begin, you’ll be ahead of the game.

Set a good example – Turns out that age-old advice to avoid discussion of politics and religion is right on target. Model the behavior you want your employees to have. Avoid discussions and comments – including jokes – about controversial current topics. This helps keep people on task and can avoid possible claims of harassment, discrimination or bullying.

If employees try to engage you in a controversial topic, remind them calmly that such a discussion doesn’t belong in the workplace. Use a light touch, but be clear. Maybe you could say, “There are some valid points on each side, but that’s really not something that we should be focusing on here at work.”

Policies and procedures – Some political topics can come close to the line of protected employee conversations, especially when minimum wage, paid family leave or other employment issues are part of a candidate’s or political party’s stance. Therefore, a complete ban of political speech may not be a good idea and could potentially violate an employee’s right under the National Labor Relations Act to discuss the terms and conditions of work.

Remind employees that respect for each other is a top priority by including it in the company’s core values. Be sure formal HR documents outline harassment and discrimination policies, formal complaint procedures and a code of conduct that stipulates employees treat each other in a respectful, professional manner.

In addition, you might consider a rule that employees cannot campaign in the workplace or during working hours. Distribute policies and core values periodically and post them in public areas.

Plug in – An effective leader has the pulse of the team. Be engaged enough to know if conflict is affecting productivity.

  • Listen carefully around the coffee machine or as you walk the halls
  • Be sure you have regular one-on-one meetings with direct reports and that supervisors meet regularly with staff
  • Emphasize open communication between managers and staff
  • Encourage employees to take a break from reading headlines or social media updates throughout the day to avoid “media burn out”

 2. Remind everyone of the rules

At a regularly scheduled group meeting, take the opportunity to remind employees that the company’s core values include mutual respect. Reiterate that:

  • Discrimination, harassment or retaliation against any protected class, including national origin and religion, are not tolerated
  • Political discussions belong outside the workplace
  • Respectful treatment for all is a basic tenet of workplace interactions
  • If anyone is feeling overwhelmed or stressed over current events, remind them of your open-door policy or other process for employees to report concerns

Explain that the goal is not to suppress employee conversations, but to caution against engaging in emotionally charged exchanges that have the potential to get out of control and disrupt business operations and negatively impact working relationships.

Suggest to your employees that they respond firmly but calmly if another employee tries to engage them in a heated discussion. Usually a light statement does the trick, like, “Sorry, but I’ve got too much work to do right now to talk about politics.”

3. Resolve problems quickly 

If you find there is tension caused by discussion of current events among team members, or an employee is acting in an aggressive, disrespectful or threatening way, you must act swiftly and consistently. If you ignore early rumblings of discord, they may grow into something ugly.

The best first step is to talk individually to the parties involved. This is particularly useful if the problem is a low-key interpersonal issue or in its early stages.

You might start by saying something like, “I know there has been some tension in the office lately about what’s going on in the world. Remember we are here to work and move the business forward. Not everyone shares the same beliefs, and it’s OK to disagree. However, heated exchanges alter our productivity, so it’s best to keep talk about politics to your time outside the office.”

If the situation continues, a mediated one-on-one between the offending people may be required to get back on track.  As mediator, you should:

  • Tell them they are distracting their co-workers
  • Remind them their focus should be their work
  • Agree on admissible limits of conversations
  • Reduce perception the other person is “bad”
  • Ask them to accept they disagree, and that no one is right or wrong
  • Help them determine how to move past their differences for the good of everyone

If talking does not solve the problem, initiating the formal progressive discipline procedure may be necessary. Check with your human resources advisor or legal counsel before disciplining an employee for discussing political subjects.

For employees who express concern, depression or inability to focus on their work due to outside issues, inclusive of current events, you can offer your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), if you have one.  Most EAPs offer counseling services that can provide helpful tools to support employees in handling what is and isn’t within their control.

Learn more about what is legally permissible in the workplace by downloading our free e-book, Employment Law: Are You Putting Your Business at Risk?