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Political anger a new challenge for HR managers

Political talk of the water-cooler variety is an old tradition in workplaces. I debate the latest ridiculous thing happening locally or in D.C. with a co-worker. He sees things differently and I enjoy that difference.

We are seeing another level of political discourse in workplaces. A few people are very angry and let everybody know it. Call them the Angry Advocates.

Human Resource pros know how to deal with excessive political talk or sexist remarks that offend others. Anger brings a new level of challenge to HR, to managers and to employees.

When politics, moral beliefs and stereotypes come wrapped in angry emotions, problems follow. Most workplaces thrive on cooperation and teamwork. Angry Advocates can cause big problems.

The Imperious Person

A person can be so sure of their views that everyone else is “stupid.” Problems flow when the overly confident also overly communicates. The Trump vs. Clinton battle is a current pool of energy for Angry Advocates.

When finger-pointing, unwanted emails, raised voices and extended monologues replace civil debate and good-natured jabbing, it is time for an intervention. Focus more on the methods and means used, and less on the content. Managers should not try to change an Angry Advocate’s views (or appear to do so). Instead, focus on the anger and extreme emotion.

I witnessed two strangers exchanging verbal blows at a recent conference. If I were their manager, I would have said: “You are both angry. You both have strong, unalterable beliefs. Keep the anger and extreme emotion out of this workplace because it harms relationships and teamwork.”

The Offensive Person

Sometimes an Angry Advocate is much more than irritating and becomes truly offensive. By offensive, I mean harassing or hostile comments or behaviors toward others based on who they are. The most common targets are race, gender and religion.

An Angry Advocate might blame minority groups (“they”), older people (“sucking us dry with that Medicare”) or genders/preferences for all our problems. What comes wrapped in a political or economic argument may really be more about stereotypes and minority groups.

The law requires managers to deal proactively with employees who combine their anger with harassing and hostile words. It really does not matter if they intend to harass or even understand how their words are perceived. The problem is in the eye of the beholder.

The Righteous Believer

A difficult type of Angry Advocate is the righteous believer. This is often someone with a faith-based or moral code who becomes very emotional about that code. Most of us have some things we feel strongly about. That is OK. The issue is anger and extreme emotion in support of those beliefs to the exclusion of others. Managers should keep their counseling focused on the manner and means and the impact on others, not the moral code.

If it happens in society, it will also happen in the workplace. Employers who hope it will go away may have to defend their inaction one day.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 North Carolina employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit www.capital.org.

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