Will we talk politics again with coworkers?

Since the last time millions of American workers chatted around water coolers, the nation’s gone through a pandemic, protests powering a social justice movement, an election, an insurrection and a presidential impeachment.

And now many people are returning to the office, where these polarizing topics might come up in face-to-face conversations for the first time.

But how will we talk to each other in a productive and respectful way? Will we avoid it altogether? And could our deep divisions undermine the success of the companies we work for?

Americans are increasingly avoiding conversations with people who aren’t like them, even in the workplace, where their economic livelihood depends on effective collaboration, research shows.

And that’s how some people want it.

“I was hoping for more unity after things open up,” says Brandon Bentz, 38, of Wichita, Kansas. “It’s like, let’s all try to start fresh.”

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But after the Trump era and the divisive debate over masks turned Americans against each other, he doesn’t want to talk about politics at work.

“My personal philosophy is I just don’t think there’s a place for it in most workplaces,” says Bentz, who sells tortillas to grocery retailers.

He’s not alone. And employers are increasingly concerned about the impact of political debates in the workplace.

More than 4 in 10 human resource professionals are discouraging employees from discussing politics at work, according to an October survey by the Society for Human Resource Management.

But some workers are recoiling at those restrictions.

One-third of employees at a software productivity company called Basecamp said they would resign after their CEO, Jason Fried, announced in April that workers would no longer be allowed to engage in “societal and political discussions” on an internal messaging service.

“It’s become too much,” he said in a blog post. “It’s a major distraction. It saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places. It’s not healthy, it hasn’t served us well.”

Fried later apologized after employees apparently revolted, saying the developments were “terrible” and although the policy changes, which included other elements, “felt simple, reasonable, and principled,” the situation “blew things up internally in ways we never anticipated.”

“We have a lot to learn and reflect on, and we will. The new policies stand, but we have some refining and clarifying to do,” he wrote.

Fried declined an interview request for this story.

Jason Fried co-founded Basecamp and Hey.

Tension when we go back to work

The Basecamp episode reflects how much tension awaits employers and employees when they begin seeing each other in person for the first time as remote work arrangements come to an end.

While casual conversations about polarizing issues may not be natural on live-video meetings like Zoom, they’re standard around the office, where the debate over issues like masks and the election could quickly become heated.

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