Trump impeachment inquiry and a brutal 2020 election will further stoke ‘toxic’ workplaces, HR experts warn

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Next year’s presidential election could be bruising for the politically polarized nation.

Worker turnover because of “toxic” office cultures has already cost companies $223 billion in the past five years, up 24% from 2008 to 2012, according to findings released Wednesday from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Those turnover costs could climb higher in today’s politically charged environment, the research adds. Toxic work culture flourishes when companies don’t address worker disagreements, SHRM says. And politics can surely spawn disagreement.

President Donald Trump pressed Ukraine’s leader to “look into” Democratic rival Joe Biden and other gripes the president had relating to the 2016 presidential election, according to a transcript of a phone call made to the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

‘The division we already have in the workplace now has been multiplied.’

—Society for Human Resource Management President and CEO Johnny Taylor Jr.

This week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched an official impeachment inquiry into the president.

“The division we already have in the workplace now has been multiplied,” SHRM President and CEO Johnny Taylor Jr. said Wednesday, speaking a day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

Mounting political polarization is forcing HR managers to venture into new territory and affecting employees’ ability to do their jobs.

“We have to manage that [political division] at work, and in the past, HR would never do that. We’d just say ‘don’t talk about that at work.’ They’re talking about it. Who isn’t talking about it? We’ve got to figure that out,” Taylor told MarketWatch. He says managers should bring workers together and let them discuss the issues, but with clear rules about being respectful and civil.

A survey last year from the staffing company Robert Half International RHI, -0.27%   found 22% of workers got into a “heated discussion with a co-worker” during the last presidential election. Another 15% said their productivity slipped because of the water cooler political talk.

One HR hotline has already received 60,000 calls this year on how to handle politics in the workplace.

More human resource professionals are grappling with how to handle workers who talk politics on the job. It may be a politically fraught time, but it’s also an extremely tight job market where many companies are working hard to ensure workers don’t leave for another position.

The SHRM hotline already received 60,000 queries this year on how to handle politics in the workplace, said Alexander Alonso, the professional association’s chief knowledge officer. That’s 10% of the 600,000 hot line calls it receives in a year. In 2016, it received 30,000 calls about handling the hot button topic, he said.

In fact, the hot line gets more questions on politics than it does about sexual harassment, even as the #MeToo movement gained steam. The hot line received 6,000 calls (1% of all calls) surrounding sexual-harassment issues in 2016 and now it receives around 2,400 calls (4% of all calls) on the matter, Alonso said.

Don’t miss: In the #MeToo era, 60% of male managers say they’re scared of being alone with women at work

“It’s like nothing we’ve seen,” Taylor said of the sharp uptick in calls over politics. “The level of toxicity in the environment is at an all-time high,” he added.

Federal and state laws let workers discuss job conditions, practices and pay while they’re at work. Yet there are very few laws protecting employees from being punished for talking about politics, especially private sector workers, according to Workplace Fairness, an employee advocacy organization.

See also: Think twice before talking about Trump at work—it could hurt your chances of promotion

Broader political disagreements can sometimes bleed into workplace complaints. For example, the National Labor Relations Board recently settled a case with Google, saying the company had to post notices about worker rights to talk about pay and safety conditions.

A former employee, Kevin Cernekee, filed the complaint. He alleged he was fired from Google GOOG, -0.41%  for his conservative-leaning comments on a company chat forum. The company previously said it terminated him for allegedly downloading secret company documents to a personal device.

The NLRB settlement does not discuss political activity, a spokesperson for Google GOOGL, -0.29% told MarketWatch. The tech giant’s employee guidelines state, “while sharing information and ideas with colleagues helps build community, disrupting the workday to have a raging debate over politics or the latest news story does not.”

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