Office politics: How to manage key differences of opinion in your nonprofit office

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It’s easy to assume that everyone working in a not-for-profit or charity shares a similar political ethos with our colleagues, that we can commiserate or celebrate over partisan politics and larger issues like the #MeToo movement, the adoption of preferred pronouns or many other matters.

But that’s not always the case. Sometimes, even though we may share many values, we realize we differ — perhaps profoundly — when it comes to small- and big-p politics. We talked with a number of human resources professionals to find out what nonprofits and charities can do with when these types of disagreements surface in the nonprofit workplace.

Where it’s very clear

We should first make the distinction that there’s no discussion to be had when it comes to any behaviour that doesn’t comply with the Human Rights Code, employment standards or anything that could be considered a hate crime or other criminal behaviour. Such situations merit swift human resources intervention, sometimes followed by a call to the police. But there are areas where the clash between values held by employees may be more nuanced and complicated.

It’s complicated

“By and large,” says Jonathan Bennett, CEO of management consulting firm Laridae, “the tension between differing political beliefs is often less pronounced in health, social services, and arts organizations.”

Sly Castaldi, executive director, Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis agrees. “People tend to self-select when they find out who we are and what we stand for. Occasionally I’ve seen people come in with differing beliefs they hold underground, but people tend to find it difficult to be part of an organization they can’t support.”

But Bennett has seen tensions arise in larger organizations where you can encounter a broader range of political beliefs and opinions. He’s also seen this divide occur between social service staff and their boards of directors, between management and frontline workers in a unionized environment, and in associations where members can come from a broad range of backgrounds.

In any organization, Castaldi says, “You can have your own personal beliefs on an issue but while you’re on the job, you’re there to fulfill the mandate, vision and philosophy of the organization.” But while this can be clear on some issues, it can be more muddled on others. There can also be challenges when working with a colleague who holds what we perceive as “fringe views,” adds Bennett.

Should we go there?

Janice Harper, chair, CPHR Manitoba and executive vice president human resources at NFI Group says, “A lot of workplaces set guidelines or policies that prohibit this conversation or encourage employees to refrain from conversations of a political nature or from campaigning in workplace. That said, people are people, and inevitably will engage in these conversations, often with innocent goals. And at times like elections, these conversations become more common.”

Organizational advice

When it comes to hot-button or political issues, there is consensus that leaders in organizations need to get ahead of the issue in a variety of ways.

Donna Marshall, co-owner of Workright Investigations Limited and a specialist in workplace harassment, tells of an employee accused of harassment. Marshall’s company conducted an independent third-party investigation during which it became clear that the employee accused of harassment held political views that were different from 98% of their colleagues, and that their comments sounded offensive to the management who held the majority viewpoint. At the core of the problem, says Marshall, was that management and staff “had very little awareness of their own biases.”

In an article on managing political talk in the workplace, Sarah O’Neill encourages leaders to recognize the “critical role [they play] in setting the tone for what is acceptable.” She notes that “one of the reasons traditional HR encourages leaders and employees to stay away from discussing politics in the office is because these discussions can open companies up to potential risk.” This can be because of the power differential between leaders and staff. Awareness of this leads some leaders to “choose to take a firm stance of not discussing politics with anyone. Others take the stance of being open and true to themselves.”

Awareness also extends beyond self-awareness to articulating and communicating the values of an organization’s culture. Castaldi says, “While the culture of an organization is complex, having a mandate, vision and philosophy to refer to makes many issues as clear as a bell.” Harper suggests a leader should be mindful of when current events overlap or have direct implications on an organization’s mandate. “Depending on the nature of an organization, a policy change or a new government might impact the work of the organization or its employees.” In such cases, Harper suggests talking with employees about the potential impact of the changes and how the organization is mitigating them.

This is a practice that Guelph-Wellington Women in Crisis adopts: “Whenever an issue emerges that we want to be in front of, we start with all-staff training that allows us all to have a common language and understanding for talking about the issue,” says Castaldi. “From there, we take information into program areas and listen to how things are going around the particular issue.”

Sometimes a political or policy issue needs to be worked through by a management team or board with members holding differing viewpoints. Bennett says, “This is a leadership moment. A leader needs to frame up the parameters of the conversation, looking at how team members can be fair-minded so that when a decision is reached, regardless of personal opinions, we can all accept it and move forward.”

If a political issue arises that is unrelated to the mission of the organization, Harper advises approaching it only insofar as it causes anxiety to an employee or affects their performance, in the same way that a manager might address any other stressor.

Individual advice

It can be challenging to be — or work with — the lone voice, especially when can be easy (and tempting) to surround ourselves with others who agree with us, whether online or in our private lives. Bennett notes it’s easy for everyone to feel judged for their own views and to feel like they’ve lost respect for others around them whose views might differ.

While agreeing, Harper says, “We want to have diversity of thought, differing opinions.” How that diversity is expressed, however, is key. Bennett says, “We need to start by being appropriate and careful in the workplace because we don’t always know what others think and believe. Unless a matter is directly relevant to our work, we may not even need to hash it out.”

When a clash of beliefs does arise, Harper advises using “the principles of a respectful workplace where we are non-confrontational, avoiding conversations that are polarizing or heated.”

“Political issues can involve hard conversations,” says Bennett. “In many cases you get to a point where you can respectfully disagree with one another, but sometimes this is just too difficult. If you are in the minority, and a decision is a deal-breaker for you ethically, you maybe can’t stay quiet about it and are now at the wrong organization. You will ultimately be unhappy and can damage the organization by staying.”

Social media

A particular word should be added about social media. When social media first emerged, many people set up professional and personal accounts as a way of drawing a line between different aspects of their lives. Increasingly, however, these lines are blurred, especially for those who are strongly identified with their employer. This is a tension Castaldi understands well: perceived as the face of her organization, Castaldi is cautious in her social media use and who she befriends or follows.

Bennett suggests organizations extend their social media policy beyond simply who is in charge of an organization’s Twitter feed. “Just as we wouldn’t stand up in a restaurant and shout something without expecting ramifications in our professional and personal life, we need to recognize our online behaviour can have implications for an organization.” At the same time, he says, “Your own ethics may sometimes trump this.” He encourages nonprofit staff who feel compelled to engage in potentially controversial social media (or real-life) activity to engage in conversation with their employer while a post is still prospective.

Finally, while holding differing beliefs can be challenging, the opposite can also be problematic. Organizations where all staff are (or act as though they are) aligned run the risk of ending up in an echo chamber, with groupthink inhibiting new insights. Brene Brown, author of Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts., writes, “People are opting out of vital conversations about diversity and inclusivity because they fear looking wrong, saying something wrong, or being wrong. Choosing our own comfort over hard conversations is the epitome of privilege, and it corrodes trust and moves us away from meaningful and lasting change.”

The challenge is to discover that sweet spot where we are challenged to think in new ways, but aren’t constantly battling against one another. Castaldi says, “I like outside voices because I’ve been doing this work for so long, I’ve forgotten what normal people think like. Outside voices keep me grounded and help me know where we do and should work.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for more than two decades and loves a good story.

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