Keeping employees engaged and focused during a tumultuous 2024 election cycle

It’s become almost cliché to say that “this election is the most important one of our lifetimes.” But as we approach the U.S. general election this November, this bromide does seem to ring true across corporate America.

As decision day approaches, companies are already facing divisiveness within their employee bases around hot-button political and social issues. For example, Google made headlines around the world after it fired dozens of staff for protesting the company’s contract with the Israeli government. At Barnard College in New York City, administrators cracked down on professors for what the college called “impermissible political speech.”

To ensure employees feel safe and remain productive, organizations must prepare now for successfully managing debate and differences of opinion within the workforce. The risks of failing to get ahead of this issue are myriad — ranging from employees who feel distracted or threatened to people quitting and suing citing a hostile workplace environment.

A recent Peppercomm Fireside Chat with experts in politics, rhetoric and employee engagement offered best practices for companies to foster dialogue without causing further polarization and preparing to successfully manage through what could be a disruptive election aftermath. (The panel was hosted under the Chatham House Rule, so the names of specific speakers have been omitted.)

Creating safe spaces

The first key piece of advice for all leaders is to assume that political discussions are already happening among employees. A recent Glassdoor survey found that more than 60% of U.S. workers talked politics with colleagues over the past 12 months. While it may be tempting to ban such speech in the workplace, this is a mistake for two reasons. First, suppressing or avoiding political speech at work does nothing to lessen the collective anxiety your people are feeling about the potential election outcomes. Second, organizations that quash this dialogue miss a huge opportunity to upskill and connect their workforce.

By developing a strategic plan with clear guidelines for discussion and creating spaces where people can participate in constructive conversations with one another, companies can help employees become more empathetic, broaden their worldview, open their minds to new ideas and focus their conversations while avoiding distractions. Our panelists suggested tips such as:

  • Look for common ground among people with differences of opinion, such as the importance of democratic ideals in our society.
  • Instead of interrupting colleagues or managers during the workday to talk politics, employees should limit their dialogue to specific spaces, such as employee resource groups (ERGs).
  • Employees should approach discussions in good faith — and be ready and willing to listen and learn, not argue.
  • Colleagues on different sides of an issue should be ready to both present data and ask for it to support their points.
  • Condescending or hostile speech or attitudes will not be tolerated.
  • Consider working with an experienced outside facilitator to direct these guided discussions.
Talking the talk and walking the walk

For this type of approach to work, it’s vital that corporate executives lead by example. It’s important for them to both admit humility and ensure their organizations are not just talking the talk when it comes to discussing political or social issues. Staff are watching closely how their employers and leaders communicate around these topics, so companies must prioritize authenticity.

Our panelists recommended conducting an “authenticity audit” that comprises three workstreams:

  1. Be clear on overall purpose, mission and values.
  2. Examine each set of a company’s stakeholders to determine which political/social issues are most important to them.
  3. Pinpoint which issues the organization can credibly address — given its stated purpose, mission and values; its stakeholders’ needs; and the company’s track record of living its purpose through actions impacting its stakeholders.

For example, a company that focuses on health and wellness might be considering how to communicate externally and internally about reproductive rights for women. But what if the organization doesn’t walk the walk? What if the company’s insurance plan refuses to cover care for women to travel out of state to see a doctor? Perceived hypocrisy like this can quickly derail the best-laid plans and open a company to criticism from inside and out.

What happens after November 5?

When developing their employee communications and engagement plans, leaders need to keep in mind that the work could well go beyond election night. No matter the results of the presidential race, roughly half of your employees could be upset, angry, disconsolate or even terrified. Recall four years ago when the election outcome was rejected by many for months following the vote, leading to the historic events of January 6, 2021.

Organizations should be readying today to help their people successfully manage through a tumultuous election aftermath. The alternative is the very real possibility of employees who are preoccupied for weeks — and perhaps too angry or afraid to fully interact with their colleagues and customers.

Our panelists stressed that companies need to prepare strategic messaging now to address staff’s needs for emotional, psychological and physical safety. Remind your people of the benefits available to them and where and how they can safely express their feelings, such as employee assistance programs and ERGs. It’s also important to invest in staff training/support today that builds skills like resiliency and how to have difficult conversations tomorrow.

Finally, in the event of unrest after the election leaders would be well advised to keep in place as many current processes and structures as possible — for example, the number of required in-office days. It’s key to continue to hold people accountable to their teammates and the organization. However, as long as they remain productive, people should be given some flexibility to deal with anxiety and stress. This could mean allowing them to flex their hours on a given day to care and comfort their families.

After all, while the outcome of the November elections certainly will live in our collective memory for years to come, your employees will also remember how your company acted before, during and after Election Day. Those organizations that take seriously their peoples’ concerns and worries, act now to address them, and develop and execute a long-term plan to keep their staff engaged after the votes are counted will be best positioned to succeed no matter who sits in the White House.