In an age of increased polarization in which political ideology and identity have become intertwined, workplace political discussions may be more common, but they can have detrimental outcomes. At Coinbase, a cryptocurrency exchange company, the hesitancy of CEO Brian Armstrong to make a public announcement in support of Black Lives Matter following the death of George Floyd resulted in employee walkouts. Later, in September 2020, Armstrong announced a new policy prohibiting social activism within Coinbase and subsequently offered severance packages to employees unsatisfied with the company’s apolitical mission. Coinbase ultimately lost 60 employees — 5% of its 1,200-employee staff — as a result.
At the software company Basecamp, internal discussion about a list of “funny” customer names sparked political discussions about diversity, inclusion, and tolerance. Disagreement between employees and a cofounder regarding the severity of the situation resulted in a similar ban on workplace political discussions. In response, nearly 30% of the company’s employees chose to leave.1
Get Updates on Transformative Leadership
Evidence-based resources that can help you lead your team more effectively, delivered to your inbox monthly.
Please enter a valid email address
Thank you for signing up
In this fraught political climate, is it possible to have fruitful workplace political discussions? Many scholars and consultants say yes. The solution involves employing the right style and technique. If people were to adopt a listening mentality, practice empathy, and provide ground rules for debate that allowed employees to disagree respectfully, then political discussions would be less acrimonious.2 In a perfect world, we would always follow these steps, but the unfortunate reality is that many political discussions are doomed from the start. The people who are least likely to compromise in a situation — the most ideologically extreme partisans — are also the ones who most frequently desire to talk about politics.3
Political discussions make visible what is often ambiguous, if not invisible: partisanship. When workers’ political identities are made known, they are often stigmatized. Instead of being seen as individuals, they are labeled and stereotyped by others as opposing partisans. More than a third of workers in a recent survey (34%) said their workplace is not inclusive of differing political perspectives.4
Both scholarly studies and anecdotal data show many examples of political bias in action in the workplace. A recent Glassdoor survey of U.S. workers found that 60% of Democrats and 50% of Republicans believe discussing politics at work could negatively impact their career opportunities.
1. C. Newton, “Breaking Camp,” The Verge, April 27, 2021, www.theverge.com.
2. R. Brands, “Yes, It’s Possible to (Gracefully) Talk Politics at Work,” Oct. 30, 2020, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org; and R. Knight, “Should You Talk About Politics at Work?” Sept. 26, 2016, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org.
3. “Political Polarization and Personal Life,” sec. 3 in “Political Polarization in the American Public,” Pew Research Center, June 12, 2014, www.pewresearch.com.
4. “A Workforce Divided: Survey Finds Alarming Rise of Politics at Work,” SHRM, Nov. 5, 2019, www.shrm.org.
5. A.E. Jackson, “Politics in the Workplace: Do You Need a Policy?” Glassdoor, Feb. 4, 2020, www.glassdoor.com.
7. Y. Inbar and J. Lammers, “Political Diversity in Social and Personality Psychology,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 7, no. 5 (September 2012): 496-503.
9. J. Buffet, "You Can't Avoid Politics at Work — It's Everywhere," Zety, March 18, 2022, https://zety.com.
10. L. Ryan, “Can I Get Fired Because of My Political Views?” Forbes, Feb. 15, 2018, www.forbes.com.
11. C. McConnell, Y. Margalit, N. Malhotra, et al., “Research: Political Polarization Is Changing How Americans Work and Shop,” Harvard Business Review, May 19, 2017, https://hbr.org.
12. F. Shi., M. Teplitskiy, E. Duede, et al., “The Wisdom of Polarized Crowds,” Nature Human Behaviour 3, no. 4 (April 2019): 329-336.
13. P.M. Fernbach and L. Van Boven, “False Polarization: Cognitive Mechanisms and Potential Solutions,” Current Opinion in Psychology 43 (February 2022): 1-6.
14. D.C. Mutz, “The Consequences of Cross-Cutting Networks for Political Participation,” American Journal of Political Science 46, no. 4 (October 2002): 838-855.
15. “Political Polarization and Personal Life,” Pew Research Center.
16. Ibid; E.H. Meyer, “How to Navigate Politics at Work,” Glassdoor, Dec. 7, 2020, www.glassdoor.com; and “Finding the Right Approach to Political Expression at Work,” Randstad, accessed July 26, 2021, https://rlc.randstadusa.com.
17. P.J. Conover, D.D. Searning, and I.M. Crewe, “The Deliberative Potential of Political Discussion,” British Journal of Political Science 32, no. 1 (January 2002): 21-62.
18. T. Smith, “‘Dude, I’m Done’: When Politics Tears Families and Friendships Apart,” NPR, Oct. 27, 2020, www.npr.org; E. Bernstein, “Loathe Your Loved One’s Politics? Here’s Some Advice,” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 19, 2020, www.wsj.com; and J. Safer, “I Love You, but I Hate Your Politics: How to Protect Your Intimate Relationships in a Poisonous Partisan World” (Biteback Publishing, 2019), 99.