Political discord an ongoing challenge in workplaces — especially for Gen Z

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This story was first published by Digiday sibling WorkLife

Talking about politics at work was once taboo, but now it’s commonplace. And that means the polarization that so often comes with it is encroaching into workplaces.

Some 60% of workers say they’ve talked politics with colleagues in the past year, a recent survey from Glassdoor found. It comes amid ongoing world conflicts and with an upcoming U.S. presidential election, and as social media compels not only individuals but also their employers to vocalize which side they’re on. 

It’s also as more of the youngest generation in the workforce, who grew up online, finds themselves uncomfortable working for companies – and with people – that hold different values and beliefs from their own. 

About 72% of Gen Z workers said they are comfortable working with people who have different political views from their own, compared to 83% of Millennials, 87% of Gen Xers and 84% of Baby Boomers, according to the Glassdoor survey, which included responses from over 1,000 working adults in the U.S. this October. About half of Gen Zers said they wouldn’t even apply to a company where a CEO openly supported a political candidate they did not agree with. 

“Polarization has been a long-term trend in American society, but I think increasingly that it’s seeping into the workplace,” said Aaron Terrazas, chief economist at Glassdoor. “For so long the workplace was one of the last cultural institutions where people of all different persuasions kind of could work toward a common goal, but that feels like it’s changed,” he said. It’s an issue with no easy answer and now affecting some of their professional relationships, experts say.

Disagreements may lead younger workers to miss out on connection with people “that could give you great insight, great experience and great mentorship in your chosen profession,” said Laurie Chamberlin, head of recruitment solutions, North America at talent provider LHH. 

Ultimately they need to consider this, though: “We’re never going to agree on every single topic that’s important to us, and so what are the ones that are non-starters?” Chamberlin said. 

At the same time, the survey also found that Gen Z workers are less likely than older colleagues to feel comfortable openly sharing their political views. About half of workers overall would only share their views if it were anonymous, with those younger, Black, and Democrat-identifying more likely to say so.

That’s a problem for companies taking their own stances on current political issues. “They might be getting a misrepresented picture because of who is tending to be more vocal about it,” Terrazas said.

Last year the overturning of Roe V. Wade prompted many employers to show they disagreed with that decision, spurring some to even make policy changes in their organizations to ensure staff could still access reproductive care. 

“We know that there tend to be these moments, like we’ve seen at various points in the past few years, where these topics just take on a cultural life of their own,” Terrazas said. 

The survey found that younger workers were more likely to say they feel supported when their company takes a public stance on an issue that they care about, with about 70% of Gen Z and Millenials agreeing, compared to about 60% of Gen X workers and 50% of Baby Boomers. 

Whether employers like it or not, “they’re going to have to address it because employees are talking about it,” Terrazas said. And there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy, but they should first engage more directly in these employee conversations to understand their views better.

“There are attrition or resentment risks when companies and executive leaders speak up without getting a sense of where their employee base is. It’s all the more important that company leaders have a good pulse and have a good sense of where their employees are and where their community is on so many of these issues,” he said.

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