Unraveling the Impact of Political Conversation on Workplace Dynamics

young woman ostracized from work conversation
July 9 , 2024  |  By Kaslyn Tidmore; Christopher Rosen and Maira Ezerins

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In the United States, almost everyone has witnessed how political tensions affect personal relationships. Families divided, lost friendships, and unhappy relationships are problems that are not uncommon in this political climate. Why? Why do these issues hold such significance in our lives that they could tear apart our personal connections?

 Because political beliefs are central to one’s personal identity. These political beliefs are wound into who we are, not just how or what we think. Differences in opinion are no longer just that, an opinion, they are now often considered an insult to our very identity.

If these differences in opinion are powerful enough to rip apart personal relationships, what is to stop them from damaging the relationships between coworkers? This bond, which is necessary to maintain morale and collaboration among employees, is even more at risk due to political divisions.

Political issues will be at the front of many minds as the 2024 presidential election looms, making political discourse in the office essentially inevitable. However, these conversations can be extremely damaging to coworker relationships, and consequently, workplace ambiance.

In the article, “Hidden Consequences of Political Discourse at Work: How and Why Ambient Political Conversations Impact Employee Outcome” by Professor of Management Christopher Rosen and Maira Ezerins from the Walton College of Business, Joel Koopman (Texas A&M), Allison Gabriel (Purdue), Young Lee (Florida State), and Phil Roth (Clemson), the authors examine the impact of political conversations on workplace relationships. They look to understand how simply overhearing such discussions, without even participating in them, can have unintended consequences for employees.

Not just an A to B conversation, you C?

As with any social situation, people are not immune to conversations slipping into a discussion of politics at work. The workplace serves as a natural place for conversations about various topics such as news, current events and pop culture. Given that politics have bled into virtually every aspect of life in the United States, it is inevitable that these conversations might lead to political discussions fairly frequently, especially leading up to a big election.

While these conversations are often consensual among participants, they are also often overheard by those sharing the workspace. When a person is only overhearing a discussion and not actively participating, it means they likely did not consent to the conversation. This is what this research refers to as “ambient political conversations,” conversations about elections, political issues, or political views that are overheard by employees who are not involved in the conversation. ” conversations about elections, political issues, or political views that are overheard by employees who are not involved in the conversation.

This study found that those who overhear these conversations but do not actively participate in them regularly have feelings of anxiety over being pulled into the discussion. Because these conversations often turn into heated debates, resulting in arguments, conflict, or emotional outbursts, they can be a source of frustration for the observer. Despite not being an active participant, some have described overhearing them as disruptive and distracting, causing less productivity and lower quality of work.  

Political Tension at Work

Political discourse affects the workplace in many ways. First, overhearing political discourse at work can hinder the ability of employees to focus on work-related tasks. It is very difficult to ignore discussions on issues one has strong feelings about. Even if the person listening is not an active or voluntary participant, the brain will naturally want to listen in on the discussion, taking focus off the task at hand.

In addition to hindering the ability to focus, ambient political conversations can also be detrimental to the mental healthof employees. Because those who overhear are always concerned about being pulled into this type of conversation, they are in a constant state of tension and stress.

Though these effects can be damaging in any workplace, they are particularly harmful in work environments where employees see themselves as dissimilar from their coworkers. When employees believe that they are more similar to their coworkers, political conversations are often less disruptive or threatening. However, employees who feel as though they are different than their coworkers are, in general, likely to be less comfortable and more alert to the personal relevance and implications of these discussions.

People are also often stressed about politics while they are not in the office. Trepidation about legislation, elections, and political issues often bleeds into home lives, leaving people worried about the future of their government. When these conversations arise at work, these fears are brought back to mind, causing further stress and worry.

Employees are also concerned about how these conversations might harm the social fabric of the organization. Because these conversations pull on such strong emotions, it is common for tensions to remain long after the conversation is over. Once people’s beliefs are questioned or put up for argument, it can put a strain on interpersonal relationships within the office, causing awkwardness and tension that would not have been there before.

Though in a perfect world, political discussions would be kept outside the office walls, this is not a realistic expectation for most organizations. As the next presidential election nears, we can expect these conversations to become increasingly common and frequent. Employers should thus understand how to guide their workers through ways to navigate these situations, minimizing the damage on both the individuals and the workplace.

The primary way that organizations can handle ambient political conversations is by making their employees aware of how these conversations affect the office. Helping workers understand the implications on even those who are not willing participants in the conversation is a crucial step in creating an office where people are not constantly fearful of political conversations. If employees have a better understanding of how mentally and socially damaging these conversations can be, they are less likely to broach the topic.

Another practical solution is for employees who overhear these conversations to practice effective coping strategies. Though the responsibility should not be on those who did not wish to be a part of the conversation, unfortunately, this is likely the most practical solution to resolving this issue. Political stress from ambient political conversations can be detrimental to an employee's mental health, meaning that employees who find themselves more affected by these conversations should find coping strategies that help them deal with these feelings.

With political issues becoming increasingly more divisive, we must understand how discussions of political issues can damage relationships and be harmful to the mental health of others. As November approaches, it will be crucial that managers emphasize ways in which employees are similar. Reminding people of the importance of relationships and social ties will be crucial within the following months, not just in the office, but everywhere.

Kaslyn TidmoreKaslyn Tidmore is a first-year graduate student at the University of Arkansas, earning her masters in Public Relations and Advertising. Before joining the master’s program at the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, Kaslyn graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree in Print Journalism with a minor in Editing and Publishing. While earning her B.A., she interned with many publications, including Parker County Today Magazine, WedLinkMedia, Modern Luxury, and the school’s newspaper, the OU Daily. She currently works as a graduate assistant at the Walton College of Business.

Christopher C. RosenChristopher C. Rosen is a professor and the John H. Tyson Chair in Business Management in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. He received a B.A. in Psychology and Economics from Washington and Lee University, his M.A. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Human Resource Management from Appalachian State University, and his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the University of Akron. His research covers a broad range of topics, including employee well-being, self-regulation, and organizational politics. He currently serves as an associate editor for Journal of Management and is chair of the Human Resources Division of the Academy of Management

Maira EzerinsMaira E. Ezerins is a PhD candidate, Walton Doctoral Fellow, and Doctoral Academy Fellow in the Department of Management at the University of Arkansas. She received her M.A. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and Human Resource Management and an M.B.A. from Appalachian State University. Broadly, her research focuses on fostering inclusive, equitable, and safe work environments. More specifically, she has investigated the experiences of women and nonbinary employees, neurodivergent employees, and blue-collar or front-line workers. Within this research area, she is particularly interested in how minority employees navigate interpersonal relationships, as well as the ways technology can be leveraged to mitigate inequality.