It's been one heck of an election season, and employers are feeling it. In May, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reported that office tensions were up 26% compared with previous election seasons, according to HR professionals. In October, that figure had doubled to 52%.
In these final days of election mania, I expect those pressures to mount even further. SHRM surveyed HR managers just on workplace tensions, by the way, setting a pretty high bar; respondents weren't asked to weigh in on the level of distraction the presidential race is causing. My guess is those numbers would be off the charts.
Since I have a human resources background and I’m a manager, business and HR leaders have asked me repeatedly over the past few months how to keep their employees focused. My answer is simple: We can't, and honestly, we shouldn't even try. Here's my reasoning.
As an immigrant, I’m enthralled by the American electoral system. It’s fascinating and complex, and as President Obama recently conceded, "Democracy is messy." Being an American means taking your civic duties seriously, even when that gets stressful or all-consuming.
And given the historic nature of this election, I actively want my employees to pay attention. In fact, I’d be disappointed if any of them weren’t. As a manager, I'm fully aware of the costs involved, but I pride myself on hiring bright, inquisitive, and passionate employees. How could any American with those qualities not be engaged this election cycle?
Many employees get distracted when a new Game of Thrones season comes out. We don’t try to control that, understanding that the 20 minutes an employee may devote to reading episode recaps at work is a pretty forgivable distraction. But this is far more important!
I do think it’s important to have clear policies in place, to nurture a corporate culture that's supportive of diverse opinions, and obviously to follow the law. But when it comes to controlling the uncontrollable, I draw a clear line in the sand: Do I expect my employees to complete their tasks and do them well? Of course. Do I expect them to stay focused on their work all day without allowing their minds to wander a bit to the election or click on an election-related news article? No way.
As long as their productivity doesn't suffer as a result of that distraction, I'd consider it a hit to my own productivity to try (and fail) to regulate theirs.
Election distraction is a short-term issue. I want my employees to stay with us for years. Encouraging employees to power through their legitimate real-life concerns—from the election to breakups to health or family-related challenges—may earn a productivity boost in the short term, but it bites employers in the long term.
Over the long haul, employees feel more engaged and loyal to their organizations when their employers show genuine interest in their well-being, whether it’s work-related or not. A limited dip in productivity now will translate into an increase in engagement, happiness, and productivity later.
In the final throes of this election season, I encourage other managers and HR professionals to do the same: embrace it. We're in the final stretch anyway, when tensions may be running at their highest. So now's the time to encourage respectful office exchanges—and of course to demand civility—but don’t require total focus.
In fact, I'd suggest taking it a step further. On November 8th, let your employees either take a few hours or, even better, the full day off, to bring this election season to its inevitable conclusion—by voting.