The Toxicity of Politics: Navigating Difficult Conversations at Work


In fostering a truly inclusive workplace, the ability to engage in complex conversations has become essential. While traditional advice once discouraged discussions about sensitive topics such as sex, religion, and politics, a model of true inclusiveness demands that we embrace these conversations while promoting respectful dialogue. In today’s politically charged environment, the toxicity of the modern US political climate can make open discourse challenging.

However, with the application of conflict resolution skills and adherence to guidelines such as the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) Workplace Civility Recording Handbook, meaningful discussions on sensitive issues can still thrive. To maintain healthy company culture, we must acknowledge the importance of navigating complex conversations balanced with concrete conflict resolution techniques to foster a culture of respect and inclusivity.

Recent rulings from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) underscore this challenge. In September 2022, an NLRB administrative law judge found that Walmart violated federal labor law by prohibiting employees from wearing Black Lives Matter face masks. The judge ruled this violated employees’ rights to engage in protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

This ruling could significantly impact employers’ ability to maintain social media policies and codes of conduct around political speech in the workplace. It raises difficult questions around protecting employees’ NLRA rights while also establishing norms of civility.

As HR professionals, how do we foster inclusivity when political tensions run high?

Acknowledge that avoiding difficult conversations is not the answer. According to a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey, 36% of employees have personally experienced political disagreements at work since the 2016 election. Sweeping divisive issues under the rug only breeds resentment.

Establish ground rules upfront.

Ask employees to approach political discussions with empathy and curiosity rather than judgment. Remind them to speak from personal experience using “I” statements. Encourage respectful disagreement and listening to understand not just listening to respond. It is vital to provide a safe space for candid exchanges.

Eliminate the expectation for complete resolution.

The goal is not to change hearts and minds but rather to understand divergent perspectives. According to organizational design expert Amy Edmondson, “If you appeal to people’s desire to learn rather than their desire to win, you have a better chance.” Seek common ground where possible, but also recognize that some disagreements will remain unresolved.

Know when to intervene.


If a discussion becomes aggressive or offensive, redirect the conversation. Refocus on shared interests and values. If tensions escalate, involve leadership or advanced HR support.

While it is important to allow for protected political speech, personal attacks or insults must not be tolerated. The NLRA protects the right to discuss working conditions and organize. However, generic civility rules that require courtesy and prohibit harassment should still apply.

Consider designating times and spaces for such discussions, like monthly optional forums. Policies can permit political expression in non-work areas during non-work times, allowing employees to opt in when willing and able.

Conflict Resolution Skills for Constructive Discussions

🕊️Active Listening: Encourage active listening during complex conversations. Participants should attentively listen to each other’s viewpoints without interruption, validating the speaker’s perspectives, even in the face of disagreement.

🕊️Setting Ground Rules: Establish clear ground rules for discussions. Emphasize the importance of respect, empathy, and avoiding personal attacks. Reference the NLRB Workplace Civility Recording Handbook to provide a framework for respectful dialogue.

🕊️Emotional Management: Encourage participants to recognize and manage their emotions during conversations. Emotional intelligence plays a pivotal role in ensuring discussions remain constructive and non-confrontational.

🕊️Facilitation by Leaders: Train leaders to act as facilitators during complex conversations. Their role involves ensuring that all voices are heard, and discussions stay on track. Leaders can mediate conflicts and redirect conversations when necessary.

🕊️Promoting Psychological Safety: Foster a psychologically safe environment where employees feel comfortable expressing diverse opinions without fear of judgment or retaliation. Studies show that psychologically safe workplaces have a 35% higher likelihood of outperforming their competitors.

Leaders must remember navigating political differences will only grow more pertinent as more divergent opinions are present in the workplace while the civility in the political environment continues to deteriorate.

SHRM reports that 78% of employees expect their employers to take a public stance on societal issues. However, pressuring workers to conform to a singular view only breeds resentment. An inclusive culture makes space for diverse perspectives, civilly exchanged.

While politics remains a minefield, authentic engagement creates more inclusive environments. With mutual understanding as the North Star – not universal agreement –


Embracing true inclusiveness in the workplace necessitates the ability to engage in complex conversations, with mutual understanding as the North Star – not universal agreement – even on sensitive topics like politics.

Despite the challenges posed by the modern US political climate, conflict resolution skills and adherence to guidelines like the NLRB Workplace Civility Recording Handbook can enable meaningful and constructive discussions. By promoting a culture of respect, empathy, and open dialogue, organizations can harness the power of diverse perspectives to drive innovation, collaboration, and overall success in the workplace.

At Mercury Performance Group, a company helping organizations of 500 or more employees solve their HR problems, empower their employees, and elevate their performance, we excel at helping companies improve their conflict resolution skills. Contact us for how we can help your company create the inclusive culture that promotes success.

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