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How to manage political debate at work

Around a third (31%) of employees are uncomfortable voicing a political opinion at work, a survey has revealed

How can HR manage opposing political opinions at work? As a UK general election is now due on 4 July 2024, we asked two commentators for advice.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak announced the date of the general election on Wednesday evening (22 May).

On the same date, findings from a survey conducted by HR software platform HiBob showed that one in six (17%) employees have fallen out with a colleague over opposing political views. The HiBob team surveyed 2,000 UK professionals. 

Gen Z was more likely than any other generation to fall out with a colleague over politics, as a quarter (24%) of Gen Z survey respondents reported that this had happened to them.

According to Ronni Zehavi, CEO at HiBob, employers could risk their company culture by not setting guidelines around political discussion.

Read more: UK professionals divided on political conversations at work

Speaking to HR magazine, she said: “Even before the election was announced, political discourse had become a prominent workplace occurrence that business leaders needed to take part in. 

“It can be difficult to know how to appropriately discuss political topics at work. But without setting clear guidelines and policies, the risks to company culture are monumental.”

Zehavi added that employers should set parameters for how far political conversations can go.

She continued: “Companies should set clear parameters for conversations, bringing guidelines into place as soon as possible to prevent any disagreements becoming disrespectful. This should be done proactively rather than reactively.” 

Jim Moore, managing partner at HR consultancy Hamilton Nash, explained that HR should be careful to not encroach on employees' right to freedom of expression.

He told HR magazine: “Attempting to shut down all political debate is likely to be seen as an overreach by workers and could potentially violate their right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“This doesn’t mean that HR is powerless to set expectations and boundaries around political discussions in the workplace."

He added that HR should remind staff that political discussion is allowed, as long as it does not amount to bullying, harassment or discrimination against others' views.

Moore continued: "It's important to remember that people are entitled to express opinions that other people disagree with or find objectionable, provided no bullying, discrimination or harassment occurs.  

“It is worth sending a message to staff acknowledging that people may want to share their views on the election, while also reminding them of existing policies around acceptable behaviour, anti-bullying and anti-harassment."

Read more: What does HR want from the next election?

HiBob researchers also found that 31% employees were uncomfortable voicing a political opinion at work.

The topics that employees reported feeling most uncomfortable discussing were immigration and refugee policies (29% felt comfortable), racial and ethnic discrimination (28%) and war and conflicts (27%).

Zehavi advised HR to establish safe spaces for employees to take part in political conversations. An appointed team member could be present, to ensure that respectful discourse is maintained throughout conversations, she added.

David Rice, editor of online HR publication People Managing People, recommended that HR leaders encourage employees to report discussions that have made them uncomfortable.

He suggested: “Encourage people to report discussions that make them uncomfortable or that they don't think are appropriate for the workplace. 

“Your policy should make clear what the company view is on political discussion in the workplace, the values you want people to align with in terms of being respectful of each other and what the consequences are for crossing a line, just like you would do for harassment or racist language.”