The HRM Challenge: Managing Opinionated Employees in Polarized and Divisive Times

How Workplaces can Become Toxic in These Polarised Times

We live in extremely polarized and divisive times. With passions about politics and other topics running high and tempers flaring on social media and other online platforms, corporates and HR (Human Resource) Managers too have to deal with managing workforces that bring such passions to the workplace.

While in earlier eras, organisations did have mechanisms and avenues that dealt with employees exchanging and expressing their views and opinions on the happenings around them, it is always clear that employees and workers have to separate their personal and professional lives in such a way that there are boundaries that they could not cross at the workplace.

However, what is different about the present times is that with the proliferation of digital devices and gadgets and the easy access to online and other forms of virtual content, it is inevitable that employees would tend to bring their opinions and views to the workplace.

While per se this is harmless, what is concerning is that the hate and the negativity that characterises much of the debate (if we can call it that, considering that most discussions are now shouting matches) in the external world should not vitiate the workplace balance and cause loss of productivity or worse, end up in litigation.

The Role of the HR Managers in Balancing Free Speech and What is Permissible

This is where HR Managers have a role to play as they need to ensure that employees do not cross the invisible lines between what is civil and what is not when expressing their opinions and views at the workplace.

At the same time, it is also necessary that HR Managers do not impose Blanket Bans on freedom of speech and expression at the workplace that can “chill” the employees and leave them demoralised.

On the other hand, there is also the fact that views and opinions of the employees using official resources of the employer can land both in trouble if such comments run afoul of the laws of the land.

Indeed, those who follow the business news in recent months would have noticed the flurry of lawsuits and police complaints about workplace debates and posts of social media by the employees that have attracted the attention of the authorities and have resulted in many employees getting fired or otherwise entangled in legal complications.

In other words, this is an extreme manifestation of what happens if the HR Managers do not act in time prevent and pre-empt such outcomes by being alert to the sings that things might go wrong.

The Case of Google: Finding the Middle Path is Not Always Easy

Having said that, as we pointed out earlier, outright curbs on freedom of expression at the workplace is counterproductive, because, then such discussions shift from organizational platforms such as Bulletin Boards and other avenues to the informal sphere where Water Cooler and Coffee Breaks become the places where such discussions take place.

While this is the standard practice since the time the modern corporates came into being, what is different now is that with the highly opinionated and politically active Millennials entering the workforce, it is better to channel the debates and monitor them rather than making them disappear from official platforms, only to realise that such bans come back to haunt the organisations.

For instance, Google in recent months has been stuck trying to find a middle path between employees venting on its Bulletin Boards and ensuring that the debates and discussions do not get overly bitter.

Moreover, the few times that it tried to do so, there were protests from the employees over issues as diverse as gender and racial discrimination to its accepting work from the Pentagon. Indeed, there was also what can be termed as strikes wherein employees just walked off as a means of protest.

How Workplace Debates can be Both Transparent and Responsible

Therefore, the challenge for HR Managers in these times is to ensure that there is adequate space for free speech, without is degenerating into hate and vitriol. In our working experience, we have found that adroit HR Managers ensure that the Bulletin Boards and other platforms are monitored closely to spot early warning signs of the discussions going off on tangents as well as keeping an eye on potential troublemakers within the workforce.

Indeed, in India, Infosys does allow employees to vent and rant on its online platforms and at the same time, ensures that debates do not go out of hand.

The point to note here is that legitimate debates and discussions without personal attacks and other forms of abuse should be allowed and in case of the latter, there must be strict disciplinary action taken against the offenders.

At the same time, it is also a challenge when the official stance of the organisation on the events of the day is at variance with the opinions of its employees.

Indeed, perhaps this is the clincher for HR Managers as then they would have walk the tightrope between what the Senior Leadership says and what the employees feel. Indeed, even Google had this problem in recent months when the official views clashed with the views of its employees.

In such tricky situations, there are no easy answers or solutions and hence, it is better for organisations to come up with a Code of Conduct as far as commenting on the happenings around us by the employees is regulated.

To conclude, the present times with all their stress and strain on workforces leading to toxic workplaces are challenging for the HR Managers and the key to managing workforces lies in being as transparent and at the same time, as responsible, as possible.

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