November 22, 2016

How to Keep Post-Election Conflicts Out of the Workplace

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The surprising (to some) election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States has led to widespread protests and an even deeper division between the left and the right in American politics.

And given that it seems everyone has a strong opinion about the outcome of this election, regardless of which candidate they supported, the post-election tension is poised to seep into every aspect of life – including the workplace.

In the days immediately following Trump’s win, Elaine Varelas, managing partner at career management firm Keystone Partners, saw political conflict creeping its way into her company. Varelas works in the very blue state of Massachusetts, and she noticed her coworkers assuming that everyone in the office felt the same way about the election.

“There was a perception that everybody knew how everyone else voted,” Varelas says. “There was this malaise, this sadness, like ‘How could this happen?’ People were being asked if they were wearing black on purpose. Unfortunately, people made assumptions about how everyone voted, which was really difficult for people who were trying not to address anything about the election.”

While this kind of response isn’t aggressive, assumptions can quickly escalate into shouting matches – and team cohesion can disintegrate in the ensuing melee.

That’s why Varelas’s No. 1 piece of advice in these trying times is “Don’t poke the bear.”

In other words: Don’t even bring the subject of voting up at work.

“People feel strongly about how they voted and about who their candidate was,” Varelas says. “Nobody needs an education from their work colleagues. If they want to be educated, they will go to other sources.”

The election is over. It’s too late to sway any votes – and, really, that’s not exactly an appropriate workplace activity at any time. And simply attacking one’s coworkers for voting differently may feel cathartic at the time, but everyone’s going to regret what they said in the heat of the moment.

Best, then, to leave politics for life outside the office.

Managers: Be Proactive

megaphone“Don’t poke the bear” doesn’t mean managers and leaders should pretend the election never happened. It did, and the time is ripe for political conflicts between colleagues. That’s why Varelas suggests leaders and managers shut down such tussles before they even happen.

“Managers need to prepare for conflict, they need to preempt conflict, and they need to not be afraid to discuss it for fear that if they do, they’ll be the ones bringing it up,” Varelas says. “That’s just not the case.”

Instead, Varelas says that leaders and managers should take the time to make a quick announcement about the rules of the workplace vis-à-vis political discussion.

Varelas suggests making a brief statement along the lines of the following example:

“We’ve all seen things on the news and in the paper that are totally inappropriate for a work environment. I just want to make sure you know that, in our culture, we maintain civility at all times. Political discussions are fine, but political advocacy or solicitation – there’s no place for it here. If anything even starts to move toward hostile, there will be consequences. That’s not what our culture is.”

And if, in spite of the preemptive action, hostility still arises?

Varelas says leaders and managers need to put an end to it immediately.

“A manager needs to step in and say, ‘Stop. This conversation is not happening here. It’s over, and I don’t want it to be brought up again,'” Varelas says.

Read more in Conflict Resolution

Matthew Kosinski is the former managing editor of