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Should companies ban employees from talking about politics?

A few of the firms that have tried it have had pushback and resignations from staff.

There’s a great deal of social division going around at the moment. Take America and Britain, both countries where governmental control pretty much always alternates between two political parties. In the UK, a very large number of Labour voters (73 percent) and a substantial chunk of Conservative ones (45 percent) say they automatically dislike anyone who votes for the opposite party. These numbers are even worse in America, where the proportion of Democrats and Republicans who dislike each other tops 90 percent. Two out of every five politically engaged Americans go even further: they think people who align with the opposite party are downright “evil”.

Statistically, almost everyone in both countries will know and frequently meet those who vote differently to them. So if sizable proportion of people really do dislike each other on sight the situation seems primed for bad outcomes. After all, our interactions with people tend to be heavily influenced by how we feel about them. And one space that seems like a particularly potent tinderbox-in-waiting is the workplace.

For a start, the odds that these sites will include people who vote differently - and know it - are higher than in many other spaces, because workplaces usually consist of large groups of people from all walks of life, who have to spend a lot of time together and cooperate well together, but who (mostly) had no hand in selecting each other as colleagues. Secondly, the consequences of arguments and animosity in the workplace are particularly high - for both employees and employers.

Workers spend so much of their waking hours at work that a miserable workplace often means a big hit to wellbeing. Then there is most people's economic reliance on their job - they need them to pay the bills, feed their families and sometimes to access important services like healthcare. When bosses and colleagues don't like you, that livelihood is put at risk.

There are also tangible costs to the business itself when staff members are not getting along, as dislike and unhappiness tend to lead to far lower productivity. Humans are social creatures, and even people who try not to let their personal feelings towards a colleague dictate their professionalism may have their behaviour swayed more than they realise. Ultimately, we're just much less likely to go above and beyond to help out a colleague we hate, or bother to pitch an unrequested-but-strong idea to a boss that we think is evil.

We don't know how much productivity is dragged down by social division. But we do know that some companies have become so worried about this issue that they’ve tried to fix it by banning any talk of politics at work. After all, you can't dislike someone for voting differently to you if you don't know who they voted for! However, politics bans have often come with their own productivity-killing problems. Staff can feel like such a stance is controlling, unreasonable, or full-on discriminatory. At the cryptocurrency company Coinbase, five percent of employees quit after the no-politics rule was announced. At Basecamp, a software startup, a huge one-third of the staff resigned.

These mass walkouts could be linked to the trend of people increasingly desiring to only work for companies whose beliefs align with their own. Three-fifths of workers now say they would refuse to work for a firm which took a social stance they disagreed with, a big change from the past. One upshot of this preference may be that more and more people will ultimately self-sort into workplaces with which they politically align. The creation of staffs who are more homogenous in thought may reduce the number of rows by the water coolers. But it’s unlikely to do anything to help the social division problem.

Read our explainer on: where we work.

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