Agree to Disagree: Handling Politics and Disputes in the Workplace

February 23, 2024

2024 is here – and with it, another presidential election year.  With the arrival of the first 2024 caucuses and primaries, it’s not too early to start preparing your organization by encouraging civil disagreements and promoting a respectful work culture. One of the most challenging aspects for HR and company leaders is learning how to navigate emotional and polarized conversations among employees. We want people to feel valued and welcomed for who they are, but that can prove difficult when some employees’ viewpoints differ drastically from those of their colleagues.

What can your HR department and company leadership do to prepare for an election year and the divisions it may create in your workforce?

Let’s start with freedom of speech.

There can be a great deal of misunderstanding around this. As Jay Hornack, adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, explains in a SHRM article    titled “How Should HR Handle Political Discussions at Work?”,  the First Amendment only prohibits the government from restricting free speech, not private businesses. He states, “First Amendment rights are not something an employee can enforce against an employer.” However, there are exceptions to be aware of. If you’re a public-sector employer, then your employees are protected by freedom of speech. While private employers legally don’t have to be concerned with the First Amendment, they do have to consider the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which protects employee discussions around topics like wages, working conditions, unionizing, etc. Many of those topics are affected by politics, so you can’t unilaterally ban political conversations from your workplace, especially if what is being discussed is protected by the NLRA.

 Whether you are a private or public business, banning political conversations from the workplace is a tough stance to take, and not the most practical approach. Banning speech can hurt morale and could result in employees garnering some resentment and anger towards the organization and its leadership. On top of that, Generation Z is a growing population in the workforce. Some of the recognized characteristics of many Gen Zers are social activism and strongly held political views. According to a May 2020 Pew Research survey, “Gen Z are more likely than older generations to look to government to solve problems, rather than businesses and individuals. Fully seven-in-ten Gen Zers say the government should do more to solve problems.” (Parker and Igielnik). Mix your Gen Z employees with your Boomers, who, according to the Pew Research Center, are more likely to favor less government, and you may have some challenges. Your employees are going to discuss current events, especially during an election year, so politics and disagreements will inevitably come up in casual conversations. 

However, while employees may have the right to share their opinions and viewpoints, the way that they express them can have consequences. For example, if one employee discusses their dislike for one political candidate, and another employee begins screaming at them and becoming hostile, the employee doing the screaming should receive appropriate disciplinary action. Not because of who they support, their opinion, or the fact that they disagreed with their coworker, but because of how they displayed their perspective. It’s important to remind employees of this and provide some of these examples so clear boundaries are set, hopefully before something like this happens.

We’ll never be able to eliminate conflict from the workplace, but we can help reduce the negative impacts by being proactive and encouraging mutual respect. We all know this is easier said than done, but here are some tips that could help. 

1. Prepare Your Leadership

As much as every HR professional might wish they could participate in or observe every office conversation, it’s not possible to track everything that happens. HR must rely on frontline leadership to be tuned in and know how to manage various concerns that arise, as well as when to elevate concerns to HR.

Even a leader with the best intentions could accidentally shut down protected speech, resulting in trouble for your organization. You want to make sure you are giving leaders, including first-line managers and supervisors, the tools and resources needed to handle conflict effectively and legally. Gather your organizational leaders and train them on how to manage conflict in the workplace. Make sure they understand what rights an employee has and teach them techniques on how to properly de-escalate heated situations. Provide your leaders with some conflict management tools so they will feel prepared to step in and address disputes, rather than ignoring it or immediately elevating it. 

2. Provide Tips and Tricks to All of Your Associates

In life, many things are out of our control, especially the viewpoints of others and it’s easy to become emotional in the heat of a disagreement. When viewpoints don’t align, it can stir negative emotions, but it’s important to remember that in those times the only control you have is how you react to the situation. As organizational leaders, you can provide employees with some tools to build their emotional intelligence (or EQ) and react more constructively. Listening to understand (versus listening to respond), taking time to understand one’s own feelings around the conversation, taking deep breaths, etc., are all effective ways to encourage civil disagreements and understanding among colleagues. Looking for some quick tips you can share? Check out this article by Healthline for some techniques to use when you’re feeling anxious or angry.

At the end of the day, employees need to understand that they will not agree with everyone about everything, and at times, disagreements can even feel like an attack on “who someone is” or on their character. In fact, to support a healthy work environment, there will be times when employees need to agree to disagree. In a SHRM article titled “Ask HR: How Can Workplaces Manage Political and Social Differences? ”, Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. puts it well, “The goal should be to foster understanding between colleagues, not win an argument.” 

3. Embrace Diversity of Opinions

Most employees value working for an organization that respects and listens to their staff and encourages diversity of thought. In addition to providing staff with tips and tricks on how to improve their emotional intelligence, it’s also important to remind them that part of creating a truly inclusive organization is hiring individuals from all walks of life who have differing perspectives. Diversity is an asset because it creates the opportunity for innovation, collaboration, and can challenge an organization to adapt and grow with changing times. However, differing backgrounds and perspectives also mean disagreements are going to arise in the workplace, whether in work-related or personal conversations. As the saying goes, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” To be deeply committed to DEI and all the benefits and joys that come with it, employees will be surrounded by people who have different opinions and perspectives.

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Be Direct About the Topic and Set Clear Expectations

Company leaders and HR professionals can help set the tone for the organization. If you ignore conflict or restrict conversations surrounding major events, however controversial, you will lose respect and credibility from employees. Whether you like it or not, being a leader in your organization comes with the responsibility of sometimes being the first to address uncomfortable topics. By acknowledging that some topics can lead to disagreements and offering direction and tools for dealing with them, then you are providing proactive leadership in the situation. If you don’t address it, you leave difficult situations in the hands of the employees with little guidance. This can become quite messy. Being proactive and the voice of reason when emotions run high can be scary, but it can be worse to ignore the situation altogether.

5. Review Your Company’s Mission Statement and Values

Most organizations have core values that are consistently promoted. Ideally, at least one of your values centers around inclusion, respect, integrity, etc., and staff are expected to emulate this. These values should be outlined in your employee handbook, and it’s one of the many reasons why it is vital to have your employees sign statements that they have read the handbook upon being hired. This can be a beneficial resource in creating a positive and inclusive environment. When an employee isn’t acting within the organization’s stated values, you can refer them to the handbook, their acknowledgment, and discuss what it means to represent those values. If you don’t have a mission statement or company values, consider making that a priority for this year. 

6. Review Your Policies and Handbook

While we’re on the topic of handbooks, yearly handbook updates and staff acknowledgments are helpful in ensuring there is transparency and accountability within your organization. In addition to ensuring that your handbook shares your company’s values, there should be policies around creating healthy work environments, harassment, bullying, etc. If you haven’t already, this is a great time to review your policies and remind employees of those expectations. While we want to value all staff viewpoints and opinions, sometimes a comment can go too far. It’s important your organization has guidelines and processes in place to address those instances. It’s also vital that your staff understands where the boundaries are. Conveniently enough, that leads us to the next tip.

7. Remain Unbiased and Consistent

If a dispute leads to a disciplinary procedure, it’s vital you are consistent and treat similar situations in the same manner. This can be hard to do, especially when you may agree with the action/viewpoint of one employee and not the other. 

HR professionals and leaders are human and will have some strong opinions, but best practice is to remain as neutral as possible in the workplace. When you are in a leadership role, whether formal or informal, or in a position of power over others, your statements become more than just a viewpoint and can hold more weight to those who hear it. When a fellow employee makes a comment that deters another worker from having conversations with them, that is one thing. However, if a supervisor makes the same comment and their direct report doesn’t feel comfortable approaching them anymore, that is creating a harmful environment. Employees should feel comfortable turning to their supervisor when they have concerns, need assistance, want to discuss career growth, etc. It’s vital that employees feel comfortable communicating with leadership, so those in leadership roles must be aware of what they are saying and how they say it. This should be addressed in leadership training to help managers, supervisors, and, yes, executives, understand the perceived (and real) power they hold in their roles and how to handle that power with integrity. 

8. Be Present in Your Organization

The job duties of HR professionals and leadership can feel never-ending – many days you may feel trapped at your desk just trying to keep up with the paperwork and demands of the role. However, during election years, especially with how polarized politics have become, it’s important to be present and “seen” in your organization. Walk around, make yourself available, and try to tune into what is being discussed. One way to prevent disagreements from turning into heated conflicts is to catch them early and try to mitigate any tension. Sometimes conversations at work stem from online activity (i.e., social media posts of colleagues), which creates opportunities for both at work and off the clock tension. Do your best to monitor the conversations and interactions happening within your company. Remember, you help set the tone of your organization. By addressing conflict early, you are showing that civil discussion is acceptable but overly heated conflict will not be tolerated. If you ignore what you hear and allow things to escalate, that sends the wrong message to staff. 

9. Refocus Conversations and Celebrate Similarities

You don’t want to forbid employees from discussing current events, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t instead try to encourage conversations where similarities are shared. Every organization has yearly goals they are trying to achieve, so focus your staff on those shared goals and the ways that you can work together to achieve them. Ideally, your employees care about your organization, how your products/services are helping others, and want to see your company grow and be successful. During times of division, it’s nice to have something that can bond people together and help them remember the connections they share with others, versus just focusing on the differences. Help your staff find those similarities and share in the joy of all working towards a common purpose. 

In this blog by the HR Daily Advisor, Keri L. Norris, PhD, MPH, MCHES discusses celebrating similarities. As the VP of Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion with the National Hemophilia Foundation (NHF), she performs her work “with two things in mind—thinking about how to get people to respect differences and come together and celebrate similarities.” This can be done by providing the time and space for employees to create positive connections. Throw a party when you achieve a major company goal or bring employees together through events and shared hobbies. When employees bond over similarities, they will feel safer sharing their differences. We also tend to have more patience and compassion for those we feel a connection with, which can help reduce tension when polarized conversations surface. 


Diverse and inclusive environments come with many benefits, but they also come with challenges that require intentional and consistent work from both HR and company leaders. Creating a work culture of mutual respect can be tough when employees from diverse backgrounds and experiences find disagreements on both sensitive and non-sensitive matters. With another big election coming up this year, now is the time to be proactive and start fostering an environment of respect. To summarize the tips we’ve discussed:

  • Prepare leaders to handle conflict legally and effectively.
  • Address the fact that disagreements will pop up and provide staff with resources for dealing with conflict.
  • Embrace diversity of opinion and help employees understand the joys and challenges that come with a truly inclusive organization.
  • Help employees understand what types of discussion are acceptable and what would be considered crossing the line. 
  • Confirm that your handbook addresses topics like harassment, bullying, etc.
  • Be sure you’re remaining consistent in your disciplinary procedures.
  • Remain present in your organization and address conflict before it builds to the point of becoming heated.
  • Create opportunities for employees to celebrate their similarities and work toward common goals. 

As a nation, many would agree that the divides between people feel stronger now than in the past. However, company leaders can help their organization, and maybe even society, by encouraging environments of mutual respect and providing resources to increase emotional intelligence. 

If your organization is looking for advice or assistance with talent management, employee relation concerns, or anything else related to HR, please contact Herbein HR Consulting. Our mission is to provide top-quality HR guidance and support, while consistently prioritizing the genuine needs of your organization. We have a passionate team with a variety of strengths and expertise who would love to assist and help you achieve your goals!


Article Contributed by Jessica A. Keck