How companies should respond when politics invade the workplace

The old rule of never discussing sex or politics is good in theory, but when the political climate gets heated it can be difficult to leave issues at the door

Oculus Founder Palmer Luckey

Oculus Founder Palmer Luckey. (Ramin Talaie/Corbis/Getty)

Oculus founder Palmer Luckey’s donation to an extreme anti-Hillary Clinton group sparked a scandal and angered many at the firm (and its parent, Facebook). It didn’t have to go this way. We asked the experts how companies can handle it when things get political at work. Here’s what they said:


Leave no leader unaccountable

“When a company is faced with a situation like this, it’s critical that they first try to understand the noise. If it’s a lot of chatter on social media, it doesn’t necessarily mean there will be an impact on sales. This is something companies need to work to understand. The trick, of course, is that there can be a trailing effect. Those numbers can take days, weeks, even a whole quarter to come in—so while getting information is critical, companies have to make a judgment call on what they think the impact will be. From there, they need to act quickly, looking at the situation through several lenses: They may need to look at it through a legal lens, and they certainly need to look at it through a reputational lens.

“When it’s a situation with a CEO or a founder, the governance of the organization must get involved. If it’s the CEO, is the board able to act? Is it set up to make really tough choices? They may want to let the CEO go, and if they’re going to do that, it’s better to do it on day one than on day 10. Companies never imagine that their leader could be the source of a problem, but they have to think through a multitude of scenarios and make sure that the governance structure allows the organization to be nimble in the event it’s faced with a really controversial situation.”

Mike Van Soelen, Managing Principal, Navigator, Toronto


Know the possible repercussions

“When political discourse spills over into social media, it can start getting problematic. Even if you’re not necessarily speaking on behalf of your employer, if you’re spewing racist views, for example, that reflects badly on the company. This is particularly important for senior-level employees and owners to keep in mind, especially for public companies. If you upset shareholders or customers, that can really hurt your business.

“The old guideline is that you should never talk about sex or politics in business, because people get very argumentative about it. I think you have to differentiate between who’s talking and where they’re doing it. If it’s a few people standing around the coffee machine chatting about the presidential election, that’s fine. The challenge is keeping it to a discussion, not a debate. Political talk in the context of a business should focus on policies rather than personalities.”

Bill Greenhalgh, CEO, Human Resources Professionals Association, Toronto


Remind people to keep it civil

“There’s a strong correlation between our political beliefs and our own values. By talking about your political opinions, you’re going to create a gap in values that may create challenges in the future with your business peers. When a colleague starts to talk about politics or other personal beliefs, it’s appropriate to say: ‘I respect you, but I can see we’re going down a slippery slope, so why don’t we just agree to disagree?’ Or just say: ‘I’m going to take the Fifth on this one.’

“That’s not to say people shouldn’t talk politics at all. When they get in trouble is when they go deep and personal and start saying things like ‘I,’ ‘you,’ and ‘them.’ Then they’re creating opposing clans.

“As a manager or as an employer, you can circulate a memo as you’re approaching an election, for example, reminding everyone that they’re encouraged to vote and have a right to their own opinion, but that their expressions of their political beliefs should be respectful and in keeping with workplace policy. Most contracts don’t explicitly discourage talking politics, but there are often clauses that state that, as company ambassadors, employees must behave in accordance with the principles, the values and the mission of the organization at all times. Any infraction could be grounds for dismissal.”

Julie Blais Comeau, Founder, EtiquetteJulie, Ottawa