HR Intel: Your Handling of Political Discourse at Work is an Important Indicator of Success

Election Day 2014 - Republicans and Democrats in the campaignA regular round up of news, legal trends and workplace developments to help keep HR ahead of the curve

Your company’s stance on politically-charged discourse at work says a lot about company culture, but it’s also an important indicator of success in the 21st century.

You may have noticed that we’re in the midst of a fairly contentious time in American history. In fact, it’s likely the country hasn’t been this divided since the Vietnam War – which claimed the lives of almost 60,000 Americans and wounded more than 300,000 others. So whether you’re pulling your hair out over emails, plagiarism, Benghazi, “the best words” or Trump University, remember this – it could be a lot worse.

Nevertheless, if we acknowledge that things are pretty… shall we say uncommonly tense right now, the question then becomes – how do companies handle this issue in the office? Here are your basic options:

  • Forbid employees from discussing politics at work entirely;
  • Stick your head in the sand and pretend it’s not happening unless it boils over; or
  • Train your employees to deal with conflict, difficult conversations and to engage in “reasoned debate.”

Companies that choose the first option – an outright ban on political discussion – likely will be disappointed with the results. Not only will discussion occur inevitably despite the ban, but it’s likely to spill over into Social Media or other environments where you have little control. Frankly, in the 21st century, it’s unrealistic to expect your employees not to talk to each other at all about politics given all the means of communications at their disposal. You’re simply setting an unreachable goal.

You may also scare potential employees away with a rigid system that is designed to stifle how employees really feel. If you ban discussion of politics, that may chill the discussion of other controversial topics as well, which is bad for culture, bad for the feedback loop and bad for any leaders who are sincere in their desire to improve sentiment, morale, engagement and productivity. Instead, successful companies spend time training their people on conflict resolution and thus, they are likely to bear the fruit of those meaningful and thoughtful debates when it comes to the bottom line.

Companies that choose the second option – looking the other way – are likely the same ones that get sued a lot. So-called “reactive” HR, where you only take action if something is already a problem, is a great way to get pulled into a class action lawsuit or face a huge fine from the EEOC. It goes without saying that HR professionals need to be proactive in this legal environment, so option #2 is simply not a good, forward-thinking strategy.

That brings us to option #3 which requires some brainstorming around how best to make it work and where to draw the lines, some effort in terms of training your people to deal with opposing viewpoints in a constructive way and last but not least, a leap of faith. Sure, it’s scary to think of people debating the merits of Donald Trump’s foreign policy over lunch while armed with plastic knives, but if you acknowledge they’re probably doing it anyway, then the best move is to equip them with the skills they need to navigate that minefield professionally.

Need more proof that training is worth your time? Say what you will about their people skills, but Millennials are increasingly seeking out “learning-oriented” organizations because they seem to really care about professional development, a big part of which is the advancement of “soft skills” like conflict resolution and navigation of difficult conversations. They’re even willing to take jobs with lower salaries if the career path laid out before them is clearer, makes sense and incorporates managerial training. Perhaps they even acknowledge that they need work on their people skills a bit? We’ll call that progress.

Ultimately, this is about enabling employees to be candid with one another while also teaching them the best ways to deliver those messages in the office setting. The water cooler is not just a singular place anymore, it has grown into a virtual world with virtually no limitations. With that in mind, there’s no time like the present to ensure employees have the finesse and the vocabulary required to disagree without being disagreeable. With those skills in hand, they can deliver candid information on more than just politics, and that is almost always a good thing.

Compliance Carousel

Ocwen, a Florida-based mortgage broker, agreed to a $30 million whistleblower settlement after it was accused of violating the federal False Claims Act as well as the federal Truth in Lending Act (TILA) by failing to include certain required disclosures in loan modification contracts and servicing subprime mortgages. Ocwen admits no wrongdoing in the settlement, but by settling, admits it wishes not to go to court where it might be forced to spend even more.

Here’s how one mistake in a job offer letter cost a company thousands of dollars: the CEO of startup Blue Corona, Inc. decided to “tweak” a standard job offer letter, but did so without seeking the advice or input of an attorney or the requisite compliance information. Turns out, he forgot to specify whether outgoing employees would be eligible for commissions on deals that closed after their official termination.

Two years later, an employee left the business, but claimed that the company owed him for unpaid commissions. Blue Corona sought an attorney’s help at that point, but it was already too late because of the omission in the offer letter. Blue Corona paid the former employee about $10,000, paid employment counsel for consultation after the fact and estimated that it spent about 100 hours resolving the dispute.

Two Amtrak workers have been charged with fraud for over-billing hundreds of hours of unearned overtime. One employee had worked for Amtrak for 39 years, but took it upon himself to triple his regular wages by billing about $117,000 in bogus overtime hours. Interestingly, federal investigators used video surveillance along with cell phone records and vehicle GPS data to verify the fraud, checking out where the employees were compared to where they claimed to be at given times during the workday. Both employees face up to 10 years in prison as well as fines.

Economic Enigmas

According to Conference Board, a research group focusing on economics and business conditions, job satisfaction for Americans reached a 10-year high in 2015, when 49.6% of workers reported being satisfied with their jobs overall. The Wall Street Journal’s coverage of this story paints the picture of an increasingly-satisfied workforce whose wages are rising, but if you dive a little deeper into the research, you’ll see that it used a sample size of only 1,565 respondents. Surveys of this nature can be helpful, but always check the sample size and, if necessary, have many grains of salt nearby to enhance your skepticism.

Curiously, the Wall Street Journal also reported in this fortnight cycle that in advanced economies, two-thirds of the population have seen their incomes “stagnate”  (pro tip: cut and paste the link into your browser window to read the full article). The sample size here is a little bigger, covering between 540 and 580 million people in 2014 and collected by the McKinsey Global Institute. At the core of McKinsey’s findings is that income stagnation is essentially a byproduct of the 2008 financial crisis, and that the fallout from the global financial meltdown hasn’t yet fully dissipated. One would think that income stagnation weighs heavily on job satisfaction, but that isn’t addressed in this article. McKinsey also warns that these trends may continue in the decade ahead given slow economic growth and potential disruptions due to an aging workforce and robotics technology.

HR Quick Hitters

The NBA has pulled its All-Star Game out of Charlotte, North Carolina due to the state’s anti-LGBT bathroom bill. North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory called the move “total PC BS” demonstrating that acronyms are a lazy way to speak and that even he could benefit from conflict resolution training.

Yahoo will be sold to Verizon for about $5 billion and will then be integrated with the corpse of AOL to create a Frankenstein’s monster of irrelevant Internet properties. Perhaps Verizon is making a long-term play here, hedging against the speed and reliability of its own preexisting Internet service by cornering the market on slow-as-molasses services should the entire high-speed Internet collapse?

The AB InBev/SAB Miller mega-merger is on hold because “Brexit” devalued the pound so much that the shareholders of SAB Miller now feel they’re not getting the value they agreed to. As if it’s not difficult enough to get a mega-merger finalized (to wit, the deal still has to be approved in China even after AB InBev raises its offer), who plans for an Earth-shattering referendum as part of its integration plan?

How is this song related to HR?

In the last edition of HR Intel, we asked you how “The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley is related to HR.

On the surface, this song is about the end of summer, but in my estimation, the end of summer is used as a metaphor here for letting go of painful experiences in the past and holding onto the memories of positive experiences instead. The lyrics also evince a sense of optimism and persistence when faced with adversity, but again, Henley seems to prefer holding onto the positive vibes in favor of the disappointments. That’s a great lesson for HR, particularly where the company has gone through a period of change, challenges or setbacks.

We leave you with “War” by Bob Marley & The Wailers.

Tell us how you think this song is related to HR in the comments section below.

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