Five months after the divisive 2016 presidential election ended, the clash over political beliefs continues to take a toll on morale and productivity in some workplaces in the Greater Lehigh Valley.
Whereas some get worked up over President Trump’s tweets, others support them.
Some fear a potential loss of health insurance; others want to see major changes in Obamacare.
And while some worry about Russia’s interference in the November presidential election, others say it did not alter the outcome.
The tension is leading many to feel anxious and stressed at work.
“The division is spilling into the workplace, creating stress and animosity among employees,” said George Hlavac, an employment and labor attorney at Norris, McLaughlin and Marcus in Allentown.
Hlavac said he has been contacted over the last few months by multiple employers who are concerned about the tension among workers engaged in political discussions and its effect on productivity.
Americans are even reporting higher levels of stress than before the election, according to a recent report from the American Psychological Association. A survey commissioned by BetterWorks, a company that creates productivity software, found that post-election politics may be having a negative effect on the workplace: nearly 50 percent reported seeing a political conversation turn into an argument and 29 percent said they’d been less productive since the election.
“It does not seem to be getting any better,” Hlavac said. “It does not appear that we’re becoming more unified.”
A BAN WOULD BE LEGAL
Hlavac said his clients want to know if they are legally allowed to ban talk about politics; they are concerned they would be violating the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to free speech.
“A lot of people have a misconception that an employer is not permitted to regulate their speech at work,” Hlavac said.
“What they don’t understand is the First Amendment does not apply to private employers.”
DIFFICULT TO ENFORCE
The Society for Human Resource Management cautions employers about implementing a ban on political conversations because it says such policies are difficult to enforce and may be overly broad.
Hlavac advises employers to proceed with caution.
“I would not jump into limiting what employees are permitted to talk about, but only if it’s creating a significant workplace problem,” he said.
“There’s going to be some amount of debate about anything, whether it’s sports or politics or the Oscars,” Hlavac said. “People these days are passionate about everything, and everybody is posting their thoughts and feelings about it.
“It becomes problematic when that’s an impediment to doing your job.”
Tina Hamilton, president and CEO of MyHR Partner Inc. in Upper Macungie Township, said a workplace ban on political discussions is impractical and could make the environment more stressful.
“[Employers] should not be throwing down hard-core policies about what people can talk about and what they can’t,” Hamilton said.
“People are very passionate; everybody knows what they believe in. Especially as things get worse, it’s getting harder not to be political.”
STRESSING OVER THE NEWS
Hamilton said she understands the stress and anxiety many workers are feeling. It’s not only between co-workers with differing opinions, it’s also felt from those who follow the news cycle.
“I take a deep breath and look on my iPad every morning and wonder what happened while I was sleeping. What was tweeted?” she said.
“If you’re feeling stressed, most likely your employees might be, too,” Hamilton said. “It might be appearing as a performance issue. It might just be there’s tension. You could be noticing things are ‘off.’”
People are feeling uneasy, Hamilton said, and businesses need to be aware of it.
“At a staff meeting you could say, ‘Hey, you’re all feeling stressed. It’s a stressful time in America. The best thing we can do is collaborate as a team and support each other,’” she said.
Bonnie Sussman-Versace, founder of Focused LLC, an executive coaching and leadership training firm in Wyomissing, said a workplace culture where employees feel valued is less likely to have productivity issues because of “political posturing or environmental things that are out of their control.”
Michelle Landis, principal and owner of Pinnacle 7, a human resource firm in Fogelsville, said political discussions should be kept out of the workplace. If discussions are becoming divisive, she said, it’s important that a supervisor address the issue.
“Don’t ignore it. Bring it to the forefront and have a discussion with employees about it,” Landis said.
NO POLITICS, NO RELIGION
The Knitter’s Edge in Bethlehem has a no politics, no religion policy that it enforces among employees and customers.
“We want everyone to feel included,” said Amanda Evans, co-owner of the yarn shop where customers gather to knit and crochet together.
“We have had to stop conversations and say, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t talk politics here,’” Evans said.
It doesn’t mean a customer can’t knit a political statement, as happened after Trump was elected and some women shared patterns for the iconic pink protest hats and knit them in classes held at the shop.
ANXIETY ABOUT HEALTH INSURANCE
For some issues, the distinction between politics and work is not blurred.
Dick Cipoletti, president and owner RCC Associates, a human resources firm in Salisbury Township, said while he believes politics should be kept out of the workplace, he makes an exception for discussions about the Trump administration’s intentions to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, because it affects businesses.
“There might be legitimate anger about what’s going to happen with health care,” Cipoletti said. “I think it caused a lot of angst among business owners and some employees not knowing what was going to happen.”
Although the Trump administration’s efforts to repeal the ACA failed, a new attempt could re-emerge.
“It would seem like things are going to be relatively settled for now in health insurance, but I would encourage talking and listening to employees and assuring them that management is watching it very closely to see what’s going to happen. It potentially could affect a lot of people,” Cipoletti said.
Some discussions on Trump’s statements about women, Muslims, immigrants or building a wall between Mexico and the United States may create a hostile work environment, which could violate a business’ harassment policies or an employee’s civil rights.
“It’s difficult to separate politics from other issues, whether it’s national origin, race, gender or religion, which are all protected classes,” Hlavac said.