The figure, from a survey of 500 workers, is up sharply from 2019, when just 11 percent of workers reported being treated differently because of their political views or affiliations.
Additionally, the survey found that one in five workers reported being treated poorly by colleagues in the workplace because of their political views.
It also recorded a small uptick in workplace arguments and political disputes, with 45% of workers reporting that they experienced political disagreements in the workplace, up 3 percentage points from 2019. Nearly half, or 46 percent, said they were working.
Businesses face increased pressure from employees and consumers to speak out on political issues such as reproductive rights, racial justice, gun control and climate change. But SHRM CEO Johnny C. Taylor Jr. said the rise of workplace politics has had an impact on polarization across the country and on employee productivity and retention.
The trend is creating more turnover as employees leave organizations where they feel excluded because of their beliefs, under the lingering effects of labor shortages and “great resignations.”
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“If people are leaving because they’re experiencing political divisions and toxicity in the workplace, the thing we’re trying to correct is turnover, and we’re trying to fix that,” Taylor said.
The result is that organizations are becoming more politically like-minded, a phenomenon that has been brewing since 2014, when executives began to speak out more on social and political issues, said Abhinav Gupta, an academic and associate professor at the School of Management. An executive at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, who has studied politics and the workplace for years.
Nearly 40% of employees surveyed by SHRM said that discussing political issues has become more common in the workplace over the past three years.
“Companies seem to be becoming more politically polarized in some way,” Gupta said. “When CEOs come forward and talk about political issues or controversial social issues, it essentially speeds up the homogenization process. Employees with different political views than the CEO feel more uncomfortable and less welcome in the company.”
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Over the past decade, corporate boards have become more partisan and Right leaning. This trend shows that “American individuals are increasingly inclined to socialize and build relationships and friendships with political like-minded individuals, which also extends to the highest-level decision makers in the workplace,” the study noted.
The growing sense of division is not unique to boards: A March analysis by the Pew Research Center found that the ideological gap between Democrats and Republicans is now “greater than at any time in the past 50 years.” The study’s authors observed that political polarization among executives peaked more than twice as high as locally registered voters during the same period.
Growing polarization within companies can have “automatic consequences” of social polarization, Gupta said, as people leave their jobs or change locations to work for companies that are “more ideologically aligned.” Greater divisions within organizations also widen divisions outside them, Gupta said.
More recently, Gupta has been studying the relationship between political polarization and leadership practice. What he’s seen so far is that companies that are more ideologically homogenous tend to have more ethical lapses, as evidenced by the fines and other penalties imposed by regulators.
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“You can think of this as the moral dividend that diversity brings,” Gupta said. “The more you can do this sanity check on a situation from a different angle, the less likely you are to make a decision that will ultimately lead to a major ethical lapse.”
About 60% of employees surveyed by SHRM said they tend to agree politically with colleagues, while more than 50% said they tend to agree politically with managers.
The SHRM survey found that employees who work in-person are more likely to engage in political discussions with colleagues and are more likely to encounter political disagreements in the workplace than hybrid and fully remote workers.
With Election Day about a month away, business leaders should be actively thinking about how to create an environment where employees can discuss their views civilly, Taylor said. The survey found that while more and more employees are being treated differently or biased because of their political views and political discussions with colleagues, only 8% of organizations communicate guidelines to employees about political discussions at work.
“These conversations are going to happen,” Taylor said. “What we need to do is not ignore that they are happening.”