Describing the current political climate as turbulent might be an understatement. The country is divided, and it's not uncommon for that tension to follow employees into the workplace.

Unfortunately, such political expression is taking its toll.

In fact, an April Clutch survey of 1,000 employees found that 12 percent of employees have felt uncomfortable at the office because of political expression. Of those respondents, 31 percent also said productivity was down because of political discussions.

While it might be tempting to create a blanket policy prohibiting controversial political topics, that's not realistic. Employees can even see that as a violation of their first amendment rights.

However, it is important to create a positive environment where employees feel comfortable and safe talking about important issues. Here are five tips for handling political expression at work:

1. Prioritize respect.

Mitigating workplace conflict of all kinds begins with a company culture built on respect. Start an open discussion about the appropriate way to debate with each other.

"At Jobvite, it is important for us that those on each side of the political aisle feel included and understand that the perception of them at work won't change just because they think differently," said Rachel Bitte, chief people officer at Jobvite.

"It is perfectly acceptable to allow political expression in the workplace as long as the tone surrounding that is one of respect. Where it becomes a problem is when that expression becomes disparaging or is used as a method to harass others."

Make sure employees understand the difference. It's not the content of discussion that's offensive; it's the tone. Making that distinction will show everyone what line is unacceptable to cross.

2. Know where political discussions often start.

Today, most people turn to social media for their political information. In fact, a February BetterWorks survey of 500 employees found that 87 percent of respondents are reading political social media posts during the work day. Twenty-one percent read 20 or more of these posts.

Since many co-workers are friends on social media, there's a high chance political discussion will start after colleagues see each other's provocative posts. And when people are communicating through a screen, not face-to-face, it's easy for things to escalate quickly.

Avoid these potential issues by educating employees about professional decorum online. Remind them that even if they are posting outside of work hours, they still represent the company. Acting like a troll is not a good reflection of the organization's values.

3. Focus on issues, not specific politicians.

Politicians are inherently polarizing. Issues, on the other hand, can encourage a healthy debate.

"As a LGBTQ executive, my political conversations at work have been more focused on issues than individual candidates," said Travis Kelso-Turner, executive director of Executive Pride. "People are afraid for their futures in and outside of their workforce lives."

Jason Bland, founder of Custom Legal Marketing, also recognizes the workplace as safe place for people to vent political frustrations. And when employees have a discourse face-to-face, it helps them understand the other side.

"It's easy to paint the opposition as a faceless 'them' that is the root of all problems," Bland pointed out. "But when it's the person next to you who you see every day and like, you can more easily go into a debate with a rational mindset."

4. Create politics-free zones.

While discussing politics can be intellectually simulating, it can also get overwhelming. As Laura MacLeod, founder of From the Inside Out Project, saw firsthand, this can put employees in awkward positions.

"One of my consultations was at a not-for-profit where employees work in very tight spaces -- no doors to close for privacy. Weeks after the election, much of the talk was about the new administration and anxiety over how the social work world would be affected," said MacLeod.

Eventually, one employee had trouble focusing because of the depressing tone in the office. When he politely asked his co-workers for a break from the political talk, some of them mocked him. This led him to feel unnecessarily guilty and wonder if he was right to ask for a respite.

This situation can be avoided by creating politics-free zones in the office. Closed off conference rooms make great places to work if employees need peace and quiet. Or better yet, have a policy where political expression is limited to non-work areas like break rooms.

5. Have a system for managing conflict.

Even the best laid plans sometimes go awry. If a political discussion ever does get out of hand, make sure there's a system in place to minimize the damage.

There are great tools available to deal with arguments. For instance, iRevu allows managers to keep an eye on employees' productivity. If performance begins to suffer due to political expression, leaders can be notified of the problem and find a solution sooner.

Another option is Brǎv, which creates an online space for employees to work through disagreements and provides conflict management training.

Published on: May 4, 2017